Unintentional or Unconscious Bias

Welcome back to the “us” in inclUSion. This series discusses how we’re responsible for the culture we live in and for the changes that need to be made. We are in this together, but we all have to do some work individually too. It’s our responsibility, and it will take all of us contributing to make real change.

In our first segment, we talked about that very thing—playing our part and being an ally to people and communities that are experiencing oppression. Part of being a good ally is to challenge the biases we have that were programmed into us by society, pushing ourselves out of our comfort zone. We can’t do better until we know better, but many of us are unaware of just how many biases we have and how they affect our behavior.

Unintentional bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious way. Our biases are a lifetime of experience and cultural history that have shaped us and our perception of others. It leads us to make assumptions about people based on their physical appearance, race, age, gender, or ethnicity. It’s stereotyping that cuts deep and effects people’s ability to live their lives; it restricts their freedom. People who intend to be fair apply biases unintentionally. Everyone has unintentional bias; it doesn’t make you bad. It makes you very normal. One of the worst things we can do, experts tell us, is to pretend we don’t have bias—that it doesn’t exist. “I don’t see color.” “I treat everyone the same.”

The foremost authorities on unintentional bias in the United States are Dr. Patricia Devine and Dr. William Cox at the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Psychology. Through their extensive research, they’ve created a system clinically proven to help people “break the bias habit.” It’s the only bias-training system in the country that has clinical evidence proving that it actually works.

The three step procedure is known as Detect, Reflect, Reject.

Step One: detect the influence of stereotypes and biases. Bring them to your awareness, catch yourself, and realize that you have bias.

Step Two: reflect on the source of the stereotype and its effects on people. Where did it come from? Who is it serving? How does it harm a diverse community to think that way?

Step Three: reject the stereotypical portrayal or thought and make sure it isn’t affecting your actions.

Remember, we all have unintentional bias, but it’s our responsibility to make sure we don’t unconsciously act on them. It takes tremendous vulnerability and courage to examine your biases. Try to look at your brain like a scientist would: observe it and analyze it. When you find another bias, instead of feeling guilty about it, delight in the fact that you have found another brain pattern that you can fix, like a computer programmer would correct an error in the computer code. I catch myself all the time, and you will too once you start to be conscious of it. It’s a practice, not a one and done.

Part of challenging yourself to be a better ally is to challenge your idea of what makes you comfortable. To be an ally, it’s important to push yourself into uncomfortable places.

You might have noticed that the dominant culture often wants to specify how the groups that are facing oppression go about advocating for themselves. The dominant culture wants the protest to feel comfortable for them. For the gay community, it used to be, and still is a lot of, “I don’t care if you’re gay, but do I have to see you kiss each other or hold hands?” “Whatever you do behind closed doors is your business, but I don’t want my children to see it or know about it.” “Can you take your queerness down a notch? Why do you have to flaunt your ‘lifestyle’ all the time?”

We’ve seen the same thing happening with the Black rights movement. In recent years, when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, a form of peaceful protest, many white Americans reacted strongly. When the NBA players wore t-shirts that said “I Can’t Breathe,” many white Americans again reacted and had strong feelings. “That’s not how they should protest.” When the protests broke out over George Floyd’s murder, there were so many more comments about the destruction of property compared to comments about the destruction of people’s lives. In a country where Black people used to be considered property, that cuts deep.

If what you just read has made you uncomfortable, notice that. You have found something to work on. When you find yourself having a reaction, ask yourself, “Am I unsafe, or am I just uncomfortable?” Your feelings are information, the reaction to some sort of stimulus, but they aren’t necessarily accurate or truthful. I’m not trying to negate your feelings, but rather to encourage you to use them as information. Catch yourself when those unintentional biases come up.

If you find yourself criticizing a movement and not the oppression that is being forced on that group, you have again found something to work on. It’s not the responsibility of the groups that have experienced oppression to continue to put things in nice neat packages for the dominant culture that has created the oppression to feel comfortable. If we all work on our own biases and discomfort, we can make the changes necessary to have a vibrant, inclusive society where everyone can feel safe.

Sandy Eichel is a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Speaker and Consultant.

Photograph provided by Sandy Eichel

Check out our video podcast series with Sandy, The Us in InclUSion, at madisonessentials.com .