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.
Why do we have "Hidden Bias"?
Well, we can blame it on our cave ancestors. Back in the day, a cave person had to quickly decide if the big-furry-sharp-toothed-animal at the cave door was friend or foe; and those quick ascertains of safety were processed in their cave-brains. Science has shown that we are bombarded with 11 million bits of information every moment, but we can only consciously process 40 bits of data at any time. How do we manage with that 99.9999996% gap? Through our unconscious minds. So, as humans it is perfectly natural for us to create these “cognitive shortcuts” to help us be safe, survive, and manage all this data input.
But today we aren’t cave folk; and that wiring sometimes goes against what we want our “auto systems” to work for, the most part. Think about you at work: do you want your cave-wiring impulsively taking over who you should work with, the feelings you have toward hiring someone, or defining how you act toward a new coworker? No, you don’t. You want your conscious brain to be prevalent, and that’s not always easy to do.
How Can We Manage Our Unconscious "Cave-selves"?
The first step is to accept that we do indeed have unconscious bias. Recently I was running a workshop on unconscious bias the other week and asked the question, “who’s racist?” I raised my hand, and out of the 60-plus participants about four acknowledged they’re racist. As my co-facilitator noted, what was interesting wasn’t those of us who raised our hands but that the rest of the participants that didn’t raise theirs. We all have a skewed view of the world through our respective lenses, but it’s having that awareness that we do have these skewed views of the world is vital to foster change and manage our behaviors, and not succumb to our unconscious. (Want to find yours? Go to www.projectimplicit.com to take an assessment that highlights your biases. It’s fun!).
Next, it’s educating others about their own hidden biases. “But I’m not racist,” you might hear, “I’ve many black (or white or Latino or Muslim, etc.) friends!” These types of statements are coming from the conscious brain, and not necessarily from our true unconscious or hidden biased selves. So helping people – respectfully – understand that their unconscious biases are showing is important.
Finally, it’s looking at the bigger picture: the institutional biases that exist, how they affect your (personal or professional) life, detrimentally, and how we can start to challenge them. Why does your company hire mostly white dudes? Are you marketing messages pretty non-inclusive and exclude non-traditional families? Do you tend to have friends whose demographic makeup is very similar (all straight friends, all Hispanic friends)? Think about these and decide if your unconscious biases are influencing your actions.
Hidden Bias Means You're Human!
So we’re all racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or any other –ist. And that’s OK; that means we’re human. Ultimately, it's how we manage these feelings and our actions that is the key to “unbiasing” ourselves and building on that freedom.
(a different version of this story was published for SweetRush, 2015)