Who Has Unconscious Bias?

The short answer to that question is: all of us. Bias is normal for humans, and there’s no way to eliminate it; it’s part of being human. There are, by the way, both positive and negative biases (we are biased toward the kinds of people who most resemble you or share your beliefs, while people who don’t fit into our ideas of “normal” often engender negative biases). Anyway, I’m not here to write a book about bias (go here for more info). I just want to make it clear that there’s no way to get around having unconscious biases, because all of us can’t be aware of everything that’s influencing us or we’d be bombarded by thoughts. Our unconscious biases are part of what led humans to succeed (being biased against funny-looking strangers probably saved a lot of past people).

The tattoo bias is one that comes up a lot in these trainings. Image by  @noralynepo58 via Twenty20.

Why I’m thinking about this today is that I have been helping out with a diversity and inclusion initiative at my job. One of the things I said I’d do was evaluate some potential training courses on unconscious (or implicit) bias. There’s nothing this old instructional designer likes better than evaluating online training, so I was happy to do so.

I went through two different courses. In one of them, the presenter repeated so many times that unconscious bias is normal that I’m pretty sure THAT is seared into my unconscious. But I see why they did that: you don’t want people feeling guilty or that they’re a bad person for having them. That first course reminded me that I’ve been reading a lot about unconscious bias in the books about race in the US, so I was feeling all good about myself. The course encouraged me to write down biases that might pop up into my head while I was learning, and sure enough a big ole list started growing.

The second training was more scientific than the first, and I enjoyed that. It also had some exercises in identifying bias that I really enjoyed. Sure enough, I have a bias toward males in certain roles (science rather than art). And I totally messed up another exercise that proved the same thing. These results make a good point, that many of us retain biases that aren’t even in our own self-interest, thanks to cultural traditions, media depictions, etc.

Am I Biased?

Heck yeah, I’m biased. Some of them I’m more conscious of than others, because, like the trainings pointed out, by introspection and careful observation, you CAN see some of your biases and make an effort to mitigate them in the workplace (and beyond). Also, by actually exposing yourself to members of groups you have an unconscious bias toward, you can start to see each person as an individual, rather than a group member. I’m eternally grateful for linguistics classes and factory jobs for exposing me to people outside my in-group and letting me see them for themselves.

Here are a few biases I’ve made an effort to work through, and how I think I got them:

  • People with tattoos (blame my mom)
  • Muslim men (blame a long string of horny married men in college/grad school)
  • Black people (blame growing up in the South in the 60s)
  • Fraternity members (blame college)
  • Smokers (also blame my late mother, who died of lung cancer)

I’m not saying I’ve eliminated my biases, but I know they are there, and now I can make a conscious effort to treat people as people. I’ve benefited from this a lot. Now the bias is just a twinge, which I acknowledge and move on really quickly.

How many irrational Suna negative biases are in this photo? A bunch. Will they affect my hiring practices? Nope. Image by @zelmabrezinska via Twenty20.

Now, other biases I wrote down I have a harder time with. As I wrote them down, I could readily see that some of these are really silly. I also can see where some of the biases are based on bad experiences, formed in self defense, and related to safety (like the Muslim men one, which required many years of meeting Muslim guys who did not try to proposition or assault me or my friends). Here are some silly ones that I need to work on. I have biases against people:

  • With strong body odor
  • With dirty hair
  • With tongue piercings
  • With poor dental hygiene
  • From New York (rudeness)
  • From California (constant bragging)

Who speak or write with poor grammar in formal/business settings (as opposed to cultural identity things like Tex Mex or Black English, which don’t bother me, or informal slang)

Mom also said that wearing curlers in public was trashy. How 60s.

A lot of these look to me like things my mother would have said denote “low class,” and I got it drilled into me that no matter what I did, I was not to appear like “white trash” (Mom’s words). This verifies that biases against “out” groups from your childhood are hard to get rid of, even in the face of experiences that prove them wrong. The New York and California things are based on personal experiences, and I know perfectly well they are stereotypes. They are just very sticky to me. Do you have any like that?

Biases That Protect

A couple of the biases I wrote down are pretty obviously based on protecting myself from negative consequences (real or imagined). For example, I am biased against narcissists, and that’s based on how I’ve seen friends treated and how hard these people are to eliminate once they attach themselves to you. Now, narcissists can’t help being who they are, since it’s a mental illness. And I need to not treat them differently in the workplace, but I’ll avoid them in personal relationships as much as I can, to protect me. Do you avoid people with certain personality types?

Here’s a negative bias I plan to work very hard to get rid of. I hope this goes both ways. We’re all citizens of the same country and want the best for our families.

While I’m being honest, I’ll admit to being biased against people who display giant Trump flags on their property or pick-up trucks. In my mind, I see them as the radical types who actually believe I have an agenda to take away their rights or force them to have an abortion. That’s probably not true of most of them. But, thanks to the media and reading comments on social media, this one is stuck within me. Note, however, that I am perfectly capable of working with, finding commonalities with, and even living with people who voted differently from me. How about you?

While waiting to give birth to my first child, I edited this book. I removed the word “basically” about 897 times. I did get a Society for Technical Communication award for it.

The final self-protection bias is one I am working really, really hard to get rid of, but it’s sort of funny. You see, I once worked for the great Stephen Wolfram, who is a certified genius with a heart of gold, but at least as a younger man was hard to work for. There was an incredible amount of berating, cursing, odd demands, and eccentricities to negotiate (I could write a book, but I won’t; we both have fond memories of each other…now). The thing is, he had a particular English accent based on where he was born and educated. Coincidentally, one of my coworkers at Planview has the exact same accent, being from the same area. So, every time this other person talks, I hear Wolfram. Everything that person says sounds like a criticism or a put-down (it doesn’t help that sometimes it IS that), but I have to make a huge effort to separate the two of them. My Wolfram PTSD is not doing me any favors!

I wrote this. It was very funny at the time. From Stephen’s website.

I wonder how many of us deal with biases like that? I’d love to hear some stories.

In any case, there’s no doubt in my mind that my biases that popped into my head are just scratching the surface and that there are many more hiding down deep in the recesses of my subconscious, helping me make judgments quickly, but not necessarily fairly. Acknowledging them is a good start, as long as it’s followed by making the effort to eliminate them in important business activities like hiring, reviewing, and such. I’m on it.

PS: I just ran across an article that provides some great ways to open up conversations with people toward whom you may have negative biases. Check it out!

I’ve Had a Rough Relationship with Love

Oh, who hasn’t had a rough relationship with love? (Not a surprising UU Lent word, is it?) If you haven’t, count yourself as fortunate and give yourself a big hug. Wait, everyone else, also give yourselves big hugs. And now for some brutal honesty.

My issue, like so many of us, has been with romantic love. I was always a big fan. And boy oh boy was I full of it. Those happy hormones it kept pumping into me were my drug of choice. I kept seeking it out, even when I had perfectly good relationships. This here was my biggest failing, because I repeatedly did really inappropriate things in my quest for my love drug.

No, I do not blame my parents for how I came out. They did their best.

And, what did that do to me? It made me love myself less. And that led to the feeling that I was worthless if nobody loved me, so I did more unhelpful things to try to get the people I loved to love me or continue to love me. I worked way too hard for my Dad’s love, which spilled out to romantic relationships.

That led me to like myself less and less. My inner monologue consisted of, “No one likes you…you have no friends…you are so fat…you are a failure…” I’m surprised I could get up every morning and go to work, take care of my kids, or volunteer constantly.

Do you see a downward spiral looming? I sure do, in retrospect. I ended up with the pathetic tendency to do just about anything to get love, romantic or otherwise. I was one of those people you read about who change themselves to try to be the person their object of affection wanted.

Note: That does not work.

It never occurred to me that it’s very hard to love someone who doesn’t love themselves, and I certainly didn’t love myself. I needed to learn about other types of love than romantic love, obsession, and sex hormones.

I did it! Was it easy? Nope. I had to admit a lot of icky things about myself (see above) but thanks to a good therapist, I was able to figure out what led me to end up the way I was, and forgive my past self. I was able to see that all those past actions were leading me to current wisdom and peace.

Loving myself just as I am. Pink hair is all faded, too.

Learning to love myself has let me love others in so many ways without having to have all that hormonal stuff mess with my mind (I still have hormones; I just recognize them for what they are).

What I Can Do Now

I can love my family without expecting anything in return (thank goodness, since one of them seems to not love me back at the moment). And I can appreciate their love without basing my self esteem on it.

Shine on, Suna.

I can love my friends and be okay if they go away or have a problem with me. If they want to work it out, I’m there to do so. If not, I’ll love them from a distance.

I can love people I don’t know. For all I know, my loving vibes may be helping in some way I can’t be consciously aware of.

I can love all my animal companions and enjoy their love back.

I can love my planet.

Will I have bad moments? Will I get jealous or envious of someone else’s relationship, or hurt when things don’t work out? Yep. But I’ll pick myself back up and keep going.

Gratitude

I’m grateful to everyone I’ve ever loved and hope you got some good out of it. And I’m sorry for those I hurt.

My favorite picture of my spouse. Thank goodness for his love.

I’m grateful for my spouse, his patience, and his ability to love me as I am.

I’m grateful to Victoria.

I’m grateful to Brené Brown. Even if I generally find self-help books annoying, her conversational style and repetition of the same point in different ways helped me break through and shut my inner voice up. Go read a Brené Brown book.

“I know something about love.”