Bias In Your Backyard

A white man sees a black man walking quickly towards a woman at a bus stop.  He senses a threat until he realizes the man’s little daughter at the bus stop is the cause for his rush. He feels ashamed of his bias – especially considering he also has a black daughter.

An African-American police officer is frustrated that he has to under go diversity training.  During the workshop he takes an implicit bias test only to realize that he too has a bias – against African American young men.

A girl’s soccer coach questions the gender of his opponents not because of their short hair but because they are displaying a level of skill he associates with boys. Forgetting that he is coaching his daughter, who presumably he tells can achieve anything she sets her mind to. 

When we think of bias we often think of egregious examples ripped out of the headlines from Charlottesville to Hollywood.   This makes for easy demonization of those who exhibit bias in very public ways.   

But bias happens all around us, in our neighborhoods, backyards and yes, even in our own hearts and minds.

Bias is defined as “a particular tendency, trend, inclination, feeling or opinion, especially one that is pre-conceived or unreasoned.”

And while bias is unfair, it isn’t always malicious. Consider the three real life cases above.  One stops out of concern for a stranger. Another is an officer going through training. The third is a dad volunteering as a coach.

Bias is often unconscious or implicit, the result of a lifetime of mental links created through our own experiences, upbringing, media exposure and culture.  In other words, we’re not consciously choosing our biases.

Only when we recognize and own our own biases can we begin to change them. In order for that to happen we need the space to admit our biases without being judged for our worst inclinations.  There are differences between bias (unfair belief), prejudice (strong negative belief), discrimination (an action based on prejudice), bigotry (intolerance) or the “isms” (prejudice or discrimination based on race, gender etc).  When we lump them altogether we stifle important conversations and block change.

Increasingly I have been seeing my own bias in different places – from airplanes to subways to restaurants.  While I feel guilty and embarrassed each time, I’m slowly making progress in checking myself AND having less judgmental and more constructive talks with others.

BTW, did you create a mental picture of what groups you think I was referring to above?  If so, what does that tell you?

If you’re interested in learning more about bias, check out this podcast from which some of the stories above are pulled.  If you want to learn more about your own potential bias, visit this site for a few tests you can take for yourself.

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