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Unconscious Bias

When you are biased- and don't even know that you are

One time, I was sitting alone at the movies- one of my favorite things to do, one of those Tuesdays when the movie theater is really cheap. I had the whole theater to myself. Then a group of white boys came in, about 7, probably teenagers. Maybe college aged. As soon as they came in, I tensed up. They were not even making a lot of noise, and where minding their own business, climbed the stairs and sat down. I know that, because I watched their every move, pretending the whole time that I was not.

That's when I realized I was too distracted to enjoy my movie, because this group of teens scared me. I had absolutely no reason to think they would do me any harm, they didn't even looked in my direction, too engrossed in talking to each other, just over there being normal kids. It was not their behavior that scared me, it was just them. I judged this group of kids without knowing them, for no other reason than their age and the color of their skin. It was not a conscious thought, just a reaction.

I spent the rest of the movie feeling terrible as a person, how could I- a person of color that has experienced discrimination herself, be so quick to discriminate against these young men in my mind? why did they scare me to the point of making me think of leaving? I still feel bad, when I think about it. I felt worse when one of them asked very politely if I needed help with my popcorn box and cup. I said no, and almost ran out of there, still feeling a bit unsettled by the whole situation.

I had never heard of unconscious biases, but now I know that's what I experienced that day in the theater. I had read about white male teens performing acts of violence in their schools my whole life, so deep in my subconscious I developed fear for them. It was strong enough to come out that night. These innocent kids, that had nothing to do with my fear, scared me. Not their fault, it was completely my reaction to them existing. I felt ridiculous and ashamed of the feeling, so I set out to learn how to identify these biases in my life, and work to address them and have a better response to them when they surface.

Generally, these biases fuel the comments we know as microaggressions. Stop and think before you speak. Don't generalize.

And yes, these apply to everyone- minorities and people of color included. We can all be guilty of this kind of discrimination, if we are not careful. They are not always about race. Sometimes they're gender specific, like when we don't give men the opportunity to express their feelings and have close relationships with their peers because it's "girly", or when we assume someone will be bad at sports for being born female. Or when we assume someone is less educated because of where they were born. They affect everyone, including us.

This week I was in a zoom seminar facilitated by United Way, that spoke about these unconscious biases, and I felt inspired to write how I've learned to check myself. I have to override my gut reactions with a conscious effort to be better and do better, but it's not easy.

If I want to be a good example for my children, I have to not only talk the talk- I have to lead by example and walk the walk as well.

Attributing actions to other people based on their race, gender identity or culture

I have been guilty of doing this so many times. I've also been treated as such by other people. I know how much it hurts, yet I still have the thought, the reaction, sometimes. Whole races, whole cultures, or any group of people for that matter, are not monoliths or hive minds- they are full of individuals with their own flavor and personalities. Now, I make a conscious effort to connect to people as themselves, not as the idea I may have of them. One person doesn't represent their whole culture, or religion, after all.

And I've seen a shift on those new relationships as well, because I think that people can feel that I'm trying to connect in that way, and respond favorably to it. By seeing them as individuals, I've learned to love them better and be more empathic, as now I can relate to them at a deeper level than before. In the end, we all are more alike than we are different- we all have dreams and want to be acknowledged and listened to, and considered valuable for who we are, not what others think we are.

Any time I start thinking, X type of person does Z- I stop myself, identify this as a lie, and ask the person questions to see if they in fact do Z, instead of assuming they do. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't. But I shouldn't assume.

Perceiving people that are like us, as having more positive traits than the ones that are different

Not all unconscious biases make me have a negative reaction to people, sometimes it's the opposite. As humans, we tend to group ourselves with people like us. People that look like us, behave like us. It's a natural inclination we all have. That's why there's clubs and friend groups.

A long time ago, this was done for survival. You had to stay within your group if you wanted to stay alive. But we don't live in that world any more. We don't need to protect ourselves from the different at that level any more. But our brains still light up like a Christmas tree anyway, because this reaction is not something we consciously decide. It comes from within, from that "lizard" brain, deep within our rational one.

Now, I try to appreciate those differences. They might be different to me, but that doesn't mean they are bad, or lazy or whatever adjective I could use, just because they approach life and do things differently to the way I do them.

Or the other way around, just because someone is doing things my way, that doesn't make them better friends to have, or good at their job, or more intelligent. They are all people, and I should not judge them based on my own traits, but enjoy them for theirs.

Negative assumptions that affect our judgement in a split second

The main problem I have with these biases is that is not something I can control. They just surface, and it's the job of my conscious brain to decide how I'll act on them. But if I'm not aware of them, that's very difficult. I need to know myself, so I can identify and eradicate the reaction. We all have biases we need to work on. Every single one of us.

That is especially important in a professional setting, because these biases might affect who I hire for a certain position. I need to base my choice on the candidates' merits, not my own bias. Sadly, many people get passed over because of these biases, and how the employer perceives the particular group they're identifying these people to be in. And that's why diversity and inclusion education is so important for companies. They might miss out on a fantastic candidate, because they dismissed them before they even talked to them.

In a personal level, we miss out on meeting and making friends with people that might enrich our lives, because of fear. And that's not how I'd like to live my life. Or how I want my children to be either.

How to recognize, and stop, these biases within ourselves, so we can have better interactions

It starts with a conscious desire to accept that we all have biases. All of us. They don't make you a horrible person, they are automatic, and most times people don't even realize how they react to them.

So next time you recognize one of these feelings, stop and consider if it's based on reality. Has this particular person given you a reason to think what you're thinking? or is this a reaction to a script you learned and stored in your subconscious that has nothing to do with them? Give people a chance to show you who they are, how they behave. By all means, ask questions respectfully. Don't assume what their favorite food is based on their culture. Or how polite they might be. Or how educated.

Connect with people on a higher level, and try not to assume. I wish there was an easier way to do it, but there is not. Be humble when you make mistakes, apologize. Learn from those mistakes. Ask how you can do better. Be wary of single voices talking about specific cultures, as we tend to have confirmation biases. Talk to different people with multiple viewpoints, read multiple news sources. But always remember that one person doesn't represent their whole gender, or race, or culture. If they do good or evil- it's on them and the choices they make.

Our lives are so much better when we learn to appreciate other people's differences as assets, not hindrances. They are not worse or better just because we don't share those same traits.


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