Unconscious bias has become central to the conversations about race and equity. The belief that our unconscious mind punks us into stereotyping, in-group favoritism, and into building systems and institutions that are discriminatory against people based on race, is being met with both a healthy dose of anxiety as well as skepticism. Critics of discussions about unconscious bias argue that we are merely being politically correct and that we must be more forthright in discussions about racism and discrimination. For others, anxiety abounds about whether unconscious bias equals racism. If we all have unconscious bias, does that make all of us bad people even though we believe that racism and bigotry are abhorrent?
I believe that the criticism is valid, though I disagree with the assumption. Tackling unconscious bias is but one tactic in addressing discrimination but, it is not a substitute for the more difficult conversations that we need to have about race. Rather, it opens the door to explore how our own beliefs and actions are rooted in bias and what we can do about it.
According to Bill Kennedy, ALF Class IX, who has been in the trenches learning and teaching about unconscious bias for much of his career, and who developed the Leading Consciously curriculum for ALF, the science tells us that we harbor biases for or against everything. We cannot help it. It is how we are wired. We make decisions based on shortcuts in our brains that are shaped by history and experience. While we may be outraged when we see acts of racism or bigotry, we are not aware of those unconscious acts that perpetuate biases within ourselves, in our communities, in institutions and in structures.
The science also tells us that we can be de-biased. That we can train our brains to reject those shortcuts by slowing down our decision-making process. That we can build new schemas, those experiences that we pull from when we encounter people who are different from us. Imagine if when we see a black boy in a hoodie, we assume that it is a fashion choice that anyone could make and not because he is up to no good. Or that he may well be the next Mark Zuckerberg. Or, if when two black men walk into a Starbucks, they are greeted with a welcome just like the countless other people who don’t look like them but use Starbucks as a meeting place. Or, imagine if four black women members of a golf club could enjoy a leisurely break just like the other foursomes enjoying a beer after the first nine holes instead of having the police called to remove them because they were moving too slowly. These are blatant acts of profiling and discrimination based on stereotyping. Why are they here? Do they really belong here? Are they here to cause trouble? The acts driven by stereotyping damage both subjects and perpetrators. In the most extreme cases, people die.
But what about those microaggressions activated by the unconscious bias in all of us? Those little acts that go unnoticed by those who commit them but have been almost normalized by those of us who experience them? Like being followed around in stores or being asked Do you work here? despite carrying a purse and other items I intend to purchase just like other customers. Or being told how wonderful it is that I believe that my children will go to college. Or being asked, So, how did you get here? when in a room where I am the only black person as if I had not worked as hard as everyone else to be in that room, or that I am there to serve everyone. Or, one of my personal favorites: having an idea that I shared in a meeting ignored and then repeated by a white colleague who gets kudos for that same great idea.
I share these things because I experience some form of microaggression daily. But, after taking Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, I am also aware of my own biases and help me understand how powerful the unconscious mind is. I am also hopeful because I do believe in our brain’s plasticity and ability to create new schemas that challenge our biases. Imagine if we just slowed down and practiced mindfulness when making individual decisions or decisions in our workplaces, in our communities, and within power structures that exclude others based on stereotyping?
While mindfulness is rooted in Buddhist meditation, it is simply the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something. When we are mindful, we are less likely to take mental shortcuts. Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor Emeritus of medicine and founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, posits that “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. It’s about knowing what is on your mind.”
Mindfulness is also about acceptance. According to Kabat-Zinn, “When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.”
When we are mindful, we are less likely to allow our unconscious brains to filter what we see based on history and experience. For example, we are less likely to associate Black people with crime, or Latino people as illegal immigrants, or Asians as more intelligent or hard-working. When we are mindful, we treat each other fairly. As children, we have a fundamental understanding of fairness. Just watch what happens when you offer treats to some kids and not to others. Or, when you treat a certain group of kids differently than another. Mindfulness reminds us that no one wants to be excluded despite what our unconscious brain tells us. That our desire to be fair can trump our unconscious bias if we just slow down.
So, what can we do? Use mindfulness as our superpower. It starts with understanding our own biases. We must challenge our assumptions about people who are different from us by getting to know people who are different from us. By expanding our circles and networks to invite others in. By activating our privilege and challenging bias when we see it. When managing teams, encourage everyone’s input and acknowledge each individual’s contribution. When recruiting and hiring, create a framework that attracts a diverse candidate pool and a process that is fair to everyone. What we will find is that mindfulness begets innovation and innovation begets inclusion and fairness, which is all that any of us wants.