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Be a Better Person: Manage Your Unconcious Biases

Given that this month is Black History month and the general necessity to address systemic prejudice, I spoke to Michelle Cantor, Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) consultant on unconscious bias. Or, patterns that our brains create that reinforce stereotypes. She explains it “is not an -ism [racism, sexism, etc.]…it’s about people unconsciously having these patterns and making decisions based on [those patterns].” These patterns are developed from both our hard wiring and our experiences.

An example she uses is if someone in later generations (mid-50s) were to have the terms surgeon and male linked. Not that this person does not think women can be surgeons, but their brain unknowingly associates the two. At large, these patterns originated to alert us from danger. Oftentimes, the “danger” is just because we are approached by something or someone different from us. These unconscious reactions to what our brains assimilate with danger can “unintentionally wound someone.” Moreso, addressing and undoing our implicit biases is fundamental to DEI work, or simply promoting a progressive and safe society.

Luckily, I was able to interview Mrs. Cantor, since her expertise for the last eight years has been providing organizations with DEI strategies, one essential part of that being addressing unconscious bias in the workplace. Doing so allows these companies to optimize performance and relationships from within. While her focus may be in the corporate space, she urges that her work translates to practically any setting—since everyone has unconscious biases. It is important to note that implicit associations form about everything, not just human identities and characteristics. In action, this means we can form thought patterns about the environment, gender roles, or practically any unconscious assumption about a group or thing. For this reason, unconscious bias is engrained in the systemic behaviors of a culture or society.

First off, it's crucial to understand how problematic these unknown actions can be; they lead to what is called microaggressions, “small subtle behaviors that disadvantage a group”, or micro advantages, “small subtle behaviors that favor a group”. Microaggressions tend to be rendered against those who are unlike us, and micro advantages towards those that are similar to us. A simulation resembling a work environment tested these behaviors towards gender on eight levels (eight being the most advanced) of an organization: first, they hired 50% males and 50% females into level 1. To progress to the next level you were rated on a scale for men, 1 to 101 percent, and for females 1 to 100 percent. That one denoted percent or microaggression towards women resulted in only 35% of women making it up to level 8. In other words, the smallest bit of favoring towards men had a big difference in female representation at higher levels. While the evidence is in mathematics, the real-time effect is women’s productiveness and feelings of safety in that work environment. Meaning, these “micro” actions seem small, yet, as Michelle substantiates, they affect people, sometimes traumatically. Enough to systemically impact these groups: that study parallels the larger pattern in our society of men being promoted over women.

Understanding that these unconscious biases unknowingly disadvantage individuals, we must address our blind spots. The best way of doing so, Cantor insists, are several exercises and activities related to a person's individual experience because everyone’s blindspots are going to be different. For instance, look into your 5 most trusted people, and what identities or backgrounds they provide. Judge their similarity to yourself. Don’t account for distant associations, but close friends. Cantor reminds that this is not an assessment of morality, but an indication of who you are familiar with. One of the strongest ways to recognize the patterns our brains are making is by acknowledging “ who are world is and who we are in this interacting with.” What do you do next? Having facilitated these conversations countless times, she summarized that people most likely have unconscious biases regarding groups they are unfamiliar with. She reiterated that your brain is unknowingly going “danger!” Reasonably, she advised, “one of the most impactful ways of expanding your bubble is developing close relationships with people who are different from me.” This way I develop experiences with these individuals that make accurate patterns of association, rather than unconscious, possibly hurtful ones. 

Simply said, but not simply done, diversify your interactions and relationships. While Cantor clarifies this won’t eliminate all your implicit bias, it can address some of your largest blind spots. She assures that these relationships have to be organic. But that means still putting yourself outside of your comfort zone: participating in diverse clubs or organizations instead of assimilating to your likeness. Overall she reiterates that these hard conversations make for valuable friendships and that both sides will benefit from diversified relationships. Stepping back, the best way to challenge your blindspots is to develop real-time experiences with those different from you. Other tools include education and insightful personal activities. In these regards, Cantor advises reading. Or, Harvard’s implicit association test, a 1960s litmus test designed by three professors on unconscious bias. While there is some controversy on the accuracy, Cantor says its a ‘great gauge” for where some of your weak spots may be. Categories range from race to gender to weight or even presidents. Nonetheless, as much as you read or learn, “your brain needs to interact with people who aren’t like you.”

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