Unconscious Bias: On Being Racist, Sexist, and Having Cave People’s Brains

I have a confession to make:  I’m racist.

If you have ever met me, that might come as a shock, since I’m a diversity and inclusion consultant and extremely passionate about equity and justice. But yes; I’m racist. But you know what? To some extent you are, too.

If you’ve ever seen the musical “Avenue Q” (winner of the 2004 Tony for Best Broadway Musical, FYI), you might be familiar with the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (warning: lyrics NSFW!). In this song several of the characters sing (joyously!) about how they’re racist. They sing not about overt or explicit racism but more subversive, unconscious bias that we humans all have. It was that moment when I first heard that song that the concept of hidden or unconscious bias hit my, well, consciousness.

What’s "Hidden" or "Unconscious Bias"?

"Unconscious bias" is the preference for or against a person, thing, or group held at an unconscious level. This means we don’t even realize our minds are holding onto this bias of, say, that person on the phone who must be unintelligent because their English isn't as good as yours, or that masculine-looking woman in front of us at the restaurant must be a lesbian. In contrast, an overt – or explicit – bias is an attitude or prejudice that one endorses at a conscious level; it’s obvious and blatant.

Research on hidden bias shows that, regardless of the best intentions, most people hold deep-seated resistance to the “difference” of others, whether that difference is defined by evident factors such as race, gender, ethnicity, age, or physical characteristics, or more subtle ones such as background, personality type, experiences, or even sexual orientation. But bias can also exist in a positive sense: we may favor our family, our community, and people with whom we feel a connection based on shared characteristics or experiences (e.g., same alma mater or physical work location).

These hidden biases aren’t purposely or consciously created; they are products of our brain’s self-generated definition of normal, acceptable, or positive. They're shaped by many factors: from past experiences to our local or cultural environment, to the influence of social community and the media. We don’t consciously create these definitions of “normal” versus “different,” “good” versus “bad,” or “acceptable” versus “unacceptable.” In fact, conscious and unconscious biases are often divergent; our hidden biases may exist in spite of our sincere desire to be bias-free, and in direct contradiction of the attitudes we believe we have.

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