I’m guilty of bias and probably you are too. That sentence was almost painful to type mostly because of the emotional density of the word “guilty.” After all, you and I and most of the people we know are what we think of as “good people.” We’re not blatantly racist – none of us would not hire a person because of the color of their skin. Traditional sexism is out of the question – we would never knowingly harass or abuse or discriminate. Homophobia? Forget it!
Having said all that – and making you, the reader, (and myself) feel better – the question becomes, what does our bias look like? If we’re not guilty of blatant homophobia and the rest, what, if anything, are we guilty of?
The answer is simple: We are guilty of jumping to conclusions about what someone is like – their character, their preferences, their strengths and weaknesses – based solely on the group to which they belong. And that, my friends, lands us firmly in bias territory. A “bias” – as we use the term in our diversity/inclusion work – is simply an inflexible positive or negative belief about a category of people – an assumption.
So, here’s the task at hand. Ask yourself this question: Have you ever assumed a colleague or applicant or new acquaintance had certain characteristics based on group membership. That “group” could be almost anything: race, age, political party, style of dress, preference in tattoos, occupation, accent. You get the idea…anything.
To warm you up to the exercise, I’ll confess. My answer to the question is a resounding “Yes.” I suppose that’s pretty shocking because I make my living consulting in the area of bias. (What’s that phrase?: “Go figure!”)
Here’s my confession. It may seem mild, but it makes the point.
Some weeks ago my husband and I hosted a yard sale. Not just any yard sale, we boasted in the ad, but “nice things” – not a plastic toy or faded t-shirt to be had. Instead, vintage items, a couple of oriental rugs, even bits of silver, and then there were those lovely china tea cups my mother-in-law left me.
We opened the sale at 7:00AM and were immediately swamped. Initially, the shoppers were mostly neighbors walking their dogs, but it still was promising. Then a battered paint-spattered dented pick-up truck pulled up. Out of the cab stepped a man whose overalls and hands were equally paint-spattered. It was at that moment when my bias shook itself awake and joined the party.
The instant I spotted him into my head popped the assumption that this was not the kind of customer we were hoping to attract. No way, I figured, would he be here for the silver or the oriental rugs or even those sweet 1930’s-era tea cups. Further, I assumed, he will most certainly be disappointed at the dearth of plastic toys or over-used clothing.
Well folks, guess what? The man had a magnifying glass in his pocket. He walked straight over to the oriental rugs, turned each over and carefully examined the quality and technique in the weaving. So much for his questing after plastic toys! But it doesn’t stop there. He next ventured to the silver table and began examining the marks on each shiny piece clearly expert in assessing when it was made, where and even who produced the piece.
I guess we could call my mistake a “gotcha” moment. Might my original assumption based on his appearance and vehicle have been right? Sure, it might have, but the fact is it wasn’t. That mistake speaks volumes about the importance of each of us – even we good people – staying alert to the inflexible generalities that block our view of the other good people around us.
The material in this post reflects the ideas expressed in Dr. Thiederman’s book 3 Keys to Defeating Unconscious Bias and in the training videos Defeating Unconscious Bias: 5 Strategies and Gateways to Inclusion: Turning Tense Moments into Productive Conversations.
Sondra Thiederman can be contacted for in-person presentations, webinar facilitation, and panel participation by clicking here or calling 619-583-4478. For additional information, go to www.thiederman.com.
© copyright 2020 Sondra Thiederman, Ph.D.
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