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Biases in the Wild

Are we aware of our own biases?

This is a question I ask myself every day, because I know that as much as I want them not to be there- everyone has them, so it's certain that I do have some as well, and it's important for me to know those biases so when they surface in my mind, I can recognize them for what they are, and correct or dismiss them.

The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine about some changes he's having at his company. He's about to hire someone to do some organizational job at his office, and casually asked if I knew of anyone looking for such a job. When I inquired if he'd be open to hire a person from the many immigrant communities living in Fargo, without missing a beat he answered, "oh, I want someone that's organized and knows what they are doing". I was stunned. This is an individual whose heart and life work is in helping others, no matter where they came from or what they look like. He has personally helped many people from those same communities many times. Yet, there it was- a bias in the wild: that people of color are not as organized and not so good for "serious" office work. Never mind that most people of color I know, are extremely resourceful and intelligent. How would they get a seat at the table, if they won't even make it through the door? I don't even think he realized what he said, and I was too surprised to say anything about it. I hope he does hire someone of color for that position, and that he recognizes his own bias on assuming that they wouldn't measure up just because they have a different upbringing, physicality, religion and/or culture. I failed him as a friend- I didn't point it out. It was easier to change the subject and move on.

Just to provide another example, as a woman of color that didn't grow up in the US, and who speaks English as a second language with a fairly easy to understand accent, I am told frequently that people can't believe how well I can speak the language. The implication being, in my mind, that people of my ethnicity and country of origin speak it poorly, and that my proficiency is due to my having some sort of extraordinary talent or higher intelligence. I don't think they even realize how offensive that is. Being able to correctly pronounce words doesn't make me better or worse than other people, or more intelligent than others that might not have the same proficiency. Somehow they conflagrate having a strong accented English, with the person's abilities and intelligence. And that is a bias that keeps many immigrants from finding jobs that they are qualified for, simply because the recruiter made a split second determination based on that person's speech patterns, or their culture.

Biases can be of any kind. I can be biased to see people that look like me as more approachable, for example. Or think that boys are better at a certain task, and girls are not. Or that some people in society are better than others, or some cultures are superior. A common one is to think that a person's outward characteristics determine who and how they are and behave. Some are subtle, and not so easy to spot. Others are glaringly obvious. They all do harm to the people that are affected by them.

It's easy for me to point them out when I see them on other people, but is it the same when I am the one with a bias? Can I truly say that I can recognize when I am being biased without other people's input? I hope I do a good job identifying my own biases, but the truth is that I'm not sure. That's why having friends that hold you accountable is so important, as they might see what you can not. And you, as a friend, need to be prepared to confront that friend's bias with truth- no matter how hard it may be. It is a lot harder to confront friends and family about their biases, than people we don't know. We need to do so in a nice way, but making sure they recognize and correct that bias. And I expect they do the same with me when I need it. Yet, when I was confronted with one coming from a friend- I did nothing. I wish I had not.

Even the most well educated, compassionate, well-rounded people have biases. You can be a champion of social causes, and still react negatively in certain circumstances due to biases you were not even aware existed. Some biases might seem harmless, like my thinking that Latin folk music is in some way better than Country music- when they both basically speak of the same things, and are equally valid forms of expression, but they are not. Some biases keep people away from job opportunities and educational activities that they would be perfect for. Some even might endanger their lives. And that's why we need to constantly check for these biases, both in us and others.

I've encountered many biases in the wild in my time living on this beautiful planet. I've learned that there is a kind of different that is only tolerated by many, but not quite accepted, and you have to learn to minimize those differences in a way as not to draw too much attention to them. But some differences are impossible to hide, and people sometimes put you in boxes that you didn't even know existed, without even realizing it. So, speak up. Tell others what you think when you're a listener of, are being affected by, or have realized the existence of someone's biases. They might not even be aware they have them.


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