Implicit Bias – Becoming Aware Through Personal Connections

on May 17, 2018

I am not color blind.

I have three children. Two have brown skin. One has beige skin. I see these physical differences. So do my children. And so do others. We are a beautiful, yet conspicuous family that stands out because we aren’t what people expect to see.

In my previous blog, I asserted that implicit bias is a pervasive issue, which impacts coffee shops, family rooms, and conference rooms across the country. As a white male from a Midwest middle-class neighborhood, I have not always felt this way. As a matter of fact, as a freshman in college, I wrote a long paper arguing that color blindness can and should be the norm in the workplace.

So, what changed?

I started a journey to awareness grounded in both research and personal stories.

Someone encouraged me to take Harvard’s implicit bias test and become aware of whom I view more favorably than others.

During a leadership development session, the presenter showed various versions of the doll experiment, and I was emotionally crushed as I watched kids across races favor the white doll over and over again.

Others shared with me articles about biases in our judicial system, and the research opened my eyes.

While this academic input broadened my awareness, others’ personal stories had a much larger impact on me. As I started developing more friendships with people who didn’t look like me, I listened. I heard, and continue to hear, story after story of situations where friends were not as welcomed into certain places as I was.

One common thing these friends have heard from others: “What are you doing way out here?” (Translation – I didn’t expect to see someone who looks like you here.)

In recent publicly reported situations, it has played out in similar “What are you doing here?” ways:

As Starbucks continues to develop its implicit bias training, and other organizations attempt similar efforts, it’s critical to help people along their journey to awareness. Studies have shown some implicit bias training efforts to be helpful and others to be harmful. Based on my own experience, and based on Root’s past efforts to engage employees in difficult topics, I have three recommendations for Starbucks and other organizations to help employees identify their own I didn’t expect to see someone who looks like you here biases.

  • Ground the training and follow-up in research – Emphasize the premise that we all have biases. Having biases doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s part of how we are wired. It’s part of being human.
  • Show it, don’t just say it – Hearing about the doll experiment is one thing. Watching it, and then discussing it with others, increases awareness.
  • Make it personal – If the topic of implicit bias is too theoretical and distant, training and other efforts won’t be effective. People need to feel what implicit bias feels like by emotionally connecting with the stories of individuals who often experience bias (e.g., through film, virtual reality, and most importantly, dialogue with others).

I have a long way to go on my journey to awareness. We all do. Going on the journey as an organization and addressing implicit bias takes time, commitment, and persistence. It takes a serious and sustained effort by leaders to create the conditions that foster dialogue to increase awareness. But, awareness is the first step (prior to acknowledgment and action) to decrease the impact of implicit biases.

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