We all have unconscious bias, a subconscious attitude that affects how we see race, gender, appearance and age. Even cavemen exhibited unconscious bias, says Susan Wilson, vice chancellor of diversity and inclusion at UMKC. “Our brain is wired for self-protection and to discriminate,” she says. “When we see something that is different than us, it can produce fear, and we react to that fear.” In fact, our ancestors’ evolutionary success was based on unconscious bias. Without their bias against potential threats, we wouldn’t be here today.
Unconscious bias grows exponentially when you add in how you were raised, what your family and peers told you was right and wrong and your experiences. Even one negative action can result in biased thinking. As a society, Wilson says, we’ve become better about correcting our conscious bias, but unconscious bias is always lurking. “What you don’t know you have, you can’t work on.”
This lack of awareness makes unconscious bias hard to fix, says Nicole Price, owner of professional development company Lively Paradox, which does unconscious bias training and is currently working with the Blue Valley School District. “It’s a blind spot,” Price says. “You don’t know you have it. No one wants to admit to an unconscious bias, and most people are going to try really hard to defend themselves in saying they don’t have it. That’s the challenge.”
Additionally, Wilson says, people are often skeptical. “You have individuals that flat out don’t believe in it,” she says. “We also are living in a time where the country is very polarized, and people can be a lot less flexible in their thinking.”
As the mother of four biracial children, Yvonne Hayes, who works in the Independence School District as the career academy coordinator, says she’s seen and heard a lot of actions and comments indicative of unconscious bias. “Since I’m white, people assume many things and sometimes aren’t hesitant about sharing their thoughts,” Hayes says. “I’ve had people come up to me and tell me how wonderful it was that I adopted black kids. Or I’ve been told that my family doesn’t sound black — like they’re congratulating me. People still see color, even if they tell themselves they don’t, and they still see through really, really small lenses, even educators.”
The encouraging news is, even though our brains are predisposed to unconscious bias, we can retrain how we think. In her workshops at UMKC, Wilson tells people to constantly ask themselves, “Is this really true, or is it my mind?” Our assumption are often incorrect, she says. “I encourage everyone to get away from their automatic assumptions — to take off the glasses that they see the world through.”
A good way to do this is to expose yourself to people who are different from you, Wilson says. Doing something as simple as seeing movies and reading books that teach you about other people and cultures can affect unconscious bias.
Price says it’s all about what she calls small acts of compassion. “Go outside your comfort zone. You need to be around people that are different from you. You need to learn about their challenges and struggles. If you don’t do this, you’ll never build empathy and compassion, and that’s what helps breaks down unconscious bias.”
*To test your unconscious bias, go to implicit.harvard.edu | The Implicit Association Test measures the strength of association between concepts, evaluations and stereotypes.