If you have a brain, you have a bias.
In a New York times op-ed, diversity expert Howard Ross recounted a time when he dismissed a fellow air traveller — bearded, heavyset, flannel-shirted and with a car magazine in hand — as a seatmate with whom he should studiously avoid getting locked into conversation. Ross found out in the last minutes of the flight that the man was a radiologist with a research interest similar to his own, and regretted a lost opportunity.
Candy Khan, ’08 MEd, wants us to take a closer look at our biases. Khan is a U of A PhD candidate studying educational policy and embodiment, the lived experiences of the body beyond the intellect. She’s also an instructor in diversity and inclusion who helps organizations and individuals reduce discrimination based on gender, race, disabilities or other differences.
Over years of helping people discover their unconscious biases, Khan has seen firsthand the consequences of these blind spots. People achieve less. Organizations struggle to attract or keep talented workers. Unconscious bias can even contribute to bullying and violence in the workplace.
Unconscious biases can also reduce our effectiveness by contributing to flawed thinking and decision-making.
Fortunately, uncovering and overcoming our unconscious biases is not impossible. Overnight success is unlikely, but anyone can get started today. Here are four tips from Khan on dealing with unconscious bias.
1: Acknowledge you’ve got ’em
Through her work, Khan sometimes meets people who deny they carry biases they don’t know about. This is like claiming you can see the back of your own head without using a mirror.
Experiments using MRIs to take pictures of the brain in action reveal that all people subconsciously respond to pictures of different people in different ways. Areas of the brain from the amygdala to the frontal cortex light up when we see images of another human. One person might have an instinctive fear of women. Another might have an instinctive dislike of people with blue eyes. The important point, Khan says, is that everyone has some bias operating below their consciousness.
“If you’re human, you have unconscious bias,” she says. “We acquire them through socialization, our upbringing, media, and education.”
2: Learn what your biases are
Recognizing your unconscious biases is tricky by definition. Khan says one tool to help you self-evaluate is the Harvard University’s Implicit Association Test.
She also advocates exposing yourself to “the other.” Quick, easy ways of doing this could include attending a cultural festival that’s new to you, reading a book about a different religion or consuming media from a different cultural tradition.
You can also seek out an IDI — an intercultural development inventory — administered by a trained expert like Khan. The IDI assesses cultural sensitivity and cultural competence, which means the ability to adapt your perspective and behaviour to other cultures.
3: Ease into new waters
The next step after awareness, Khan says, is to expose yourself to the subject of your bias — gradually. For instance, if someone has a fear of heights, they don’t overcome that fear by bungee jumping. Rather, they look at pictures, video. Maybe visit a second-storey balcony.
A recent project took Khan into a homeless shelter, where she noticed that being around marginalized people made her feel uncomfortable. Realizing this was her own unconscious bias talking, Khan decided to take action. Instead of leaping right into intense conversations with the shelter’s clients, she spent more than an hour learning about the shelter from its administrators. “Not a home run, but a start,” she says.
4: Use tact when talking about biases with others
Once you’ve uncovered some of your own biases, you may be tempted to point out unconscious biases in others.
That can be constructive if broached tactfully, says Khan, but it’s important to strike the right tone by emphasizing the benefits of eliminating unconscious bias rather than accusing someone of bigotry.
“The way I approach it is to ask people: who is at the table? Who are we missing?” she says. “Chances are you’ve skipped some valuable perspectives. There’s your unconscious bias.”
Candy Khan is a UAlberta PhD candidate studying educational policy. She’s also a diversity and inclusion advisor with UAlberta’s Human Resource Services and the director of Canden Consulting.