In recent years, and even more so in recent months, events around the world have called attention to social justice issues in society. From Black Lives Matter, to Pride Awareness, to the #MeToo movement, groups that have historically faced bias and discrimination have been central to conversations about equity worldwide. Whenever conversations about bias arise, a key question comes to the forefront: who is perpetrating bias and how do we eliminate it, in the hopes of having a more inclusive society?
These questions are tough to answer. Systems that produce bias often operate in ways that seem invisible to those who benefit from them. They can even be hard to pinpoint for those who don’t benefit. For example, many individual decision makers in hiring processes believe in equity. But, when two candidates have similar qualifications, decision makers are likely to choose the candidate who is most like them.
As a system, over time, if a lot of decision makers look the same, the ranks below them will skew that way as well. In these situations, it can be hard for decision makers to see their bias (e.g., “I had two great candidates, but I picked the one I had a better gut feeling about”). It can also be hard for those who face bias to figure out why they weren’t selected (e.g., “It could have been because of my race, but the other person was also well-qualified, so it’s also possible it was something about my performance”).
I always approach diversity and inclusion conversations with the attitude that most people want to do the right thing. There are certainly people who intentionally want to hurt others and proudly endorse stereotypes (i.e., overt bias). However, the majority of people want to be inclusive of others and to judge them objectively. But, good intentions are not enough to challenge and change systems. The fact of the matter is that, in order for bias to be disrupted, action is key. What can help? Doing self-reflection is a great way to help you to act in better alignment with your good intentions.
Step 1: Identify Your Biases
We all have blindspots. Blindspots are areas in which we don’t have a lot of perspective. This is because our lived experience doesn’t align with another set of lived experiences. In other words, you are likely to think about whether something is good or bad for your company from your own perspective. But, if you haven’t also thought about how a particular policy or decision might feel from a different perspective, you have a blindspot. Just like when you’re driving, you may intend to make a good decision, but your blindspot causes you to miss something important in your environment. It’s much better for you to see what you’re missing, in order to keep yourself and those around you safe and secure.
A good way to recognize your potential blindspots is to start with your close relationships. What does your close circle of friends or family look like from a demographic perspective? Do you have any friends who identify differently than you do in terms of gender? Do you have any close friends who are not from your racial group? Are there any LGBTQ people in your close circle? Folks with different abilities? Individuals who are of a different religious background or maybe are not religious at all? Anyone who immigrated to your country of origin? If your answer to any of these questions is “no”, then you might have a blindspot in that area.
Even if you have a close friend who falls into a particular category, have you ever had a meaningful conversation with that person about how their identity has shaped their life experiences? While I would never suggest you go out and find some friends in these categories for the purpose of filling your own blindspot (it wouldn’t be too fair to your new friends!), this will help you to understand where you might need to educate yourself the most.
Step 2: Start Learning
Life is all about learning and growing. Our bodies physically change as we age. Our minds should too! We should always be striving to learn and grow our perspectives over time. Recognizing that you have blindspots can be painful. A lot of folks get defensive when they are challenged to recognize what they don’t know. But, if something hurts, it means you’re working a muscle you haven’t worked before. For example, if you go to the gym but never break a sweat, you probably won’t see a lot of change in your health. The same is true for our minds.
Recognizing that what you know about the world is limited to your own experiences is crucial. It opens the door to listening and learning from others. There are so many wonderful resources out there, written and produced by people from so many different perspectives. Taking time to educate yourself through these lenses is critical.
For example, if you don’t have a lot of Black women who you are close to, take some time to read books about race and gender that are authored by Black women. If you don’t have a lot of friends who are outside of your socioeconomic group, take time to read texts or watch YouTube videos that are about the effects of poverty on people’s life trajectories. Now that you have a sense of where your blindspots are, you can start learning with an open mind. If you find yourself thinking, “well that’s not been true in my experience”, that’s 100% the point. You are learning about a different perspective, which may require you to adjust some of your own self-centric thinking about how the world operates.
Step 3: Take Action to Stop Bias
Once you feel that you have located potential blindspots, and have tried to educate yourself on new perspectives, you are ready to start demonstrating your commitment to equity. You might want to join an Employee Resource Group at work and ask how you can help the group further its cause. Maybe you push your team to re-examine how decisions are made and whether or not processes are truly inclusive. Perhaps there are biased comments or judgments about people that are being vocalized but not corrected. If appropriate, you might want to take a stand to call these behaviors out. You should also commit yourself to ensuring you aren’t doing these behaviors yourself. There are many ways to be an ally, but it always requires actual action, and not just words.
This process also requires listening and learning along the way. You will make mistakes. Apologize for them and ask how you can get better. Take advice about how you can get better and follow it. You may have to repeat this cycle multiple times. That’s ok. No one is without blindspots. Everyone can benefit from learning from others’ perspectives. Being committed to respectful, collaborative, continuous improvement is being inclusive. Everyone benefits from a more inclusive culture, even majority group members. So, while it isn’t easy, it’s worth the work. The first step is being humble, recognizing your limitations, and committing to improvement.
Have you taken steps to recognize your biases? How have you overcome your own defensiveness? What actions have you taken to educate yourself about perspectives you might have overlooked in the past? How have you demonstrated your allyship at work?