Can You Escape Bias?
How looking beyond first impressions can help us see more clearly.
Posted August 20, 2015 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
There's no such thing as an unbiased person. Just ask researchers Greenwald and Banaji, authors of Blindspot, and their colleagues at Project Implicit. They've discovered that — because of a lifetime of conditioning by social institutions like the media, church, and schools — we harbor unconscious biases that influence our judgments about people's character, ability, and potential. Implicit bias, according to their findings, is inevitable.
I was on the receiving end of this when my uncle was placed in rehab to get his bearings after a major health scare left him reeling.
I arrived on the scene clad in yellow shorts, freckled and tan, casual, but far from disheveled. I wasn't in my work garb, but still relatively polished. Even though my attire made me seem youngish, it's rare that people mistake me for under 30. Yes, I am 99 percent beyond getting carded anymore, but not "past my prime," whatever that means, anyway.
In walks Dr. So-and-So, chest puffed out. Let's call him Dr. Peacock (for obvious reasons, yes?). The too-important-to-make-eye-contact-type. Shall I bow now or later? He got right to the point. Time to conduct his mental health assessment of my uncle. Drumroll, please. Let the magic begin.
He was patronizing. Condescending. His skills left a lot to be desired. It was a good-old-fashioned dog-and-pony-show that seemed more than a bit self-indulgent to me. But what did I know? I was just standing there observing from my corner of the room, with 20+ years of mental health experience under my belt. You might have to do better than this to impress me, Doc.
The whole exercise was blasphemy. He was clearly showing off, sabotaging any chance of forming a meaningful rapport with my uncle, or actually being able to (imagine it!) help him.
He was now ready to acknowledge me. Glory be. He smugly looked me up and down, asking "Who's this cute girl?" You already lost me with your diagnostic circus, but cute girl was now the clincher. He extended his hand and proudly introduced himself, as if the heavens were about to open up. No Hallelujah's here. I was winding up.
I managed to remember what I learned on my yoga mat earlier that day and took as much breath in as humanly possible. I then retorted, "I'm Dr. Kris." Emphasis doctor. (I don't often pull out The Doctor Card, but if there was ever a time...)
His face dropped. And I don't think it's my gluttony for Swiss skincare products and beet juice that led him down the wrong path. Yes, I'm a leggy brunette, with a relatively healthy glow, but I'm also a scholar-practitioner who has made more than a few sacrifices to get to where I am. Yet, his snap judgment was that I'm just another cute girl (Mom insists that one day, I'll wish someone was still calling me cute girl. I'm not entirely against someone seeing me as attractive, I just need them to see beyond it and see more. He assumed I wasn't on his level. He wasn't exactly apologizing but was certainly fumbling.
As shocked as he was, for me, that scene was all-too-familiar. Usually, I'm pegged for a teacher. Yes, in addition to my clinical practice, I do teach. But it's far too often a surprise to people that my teaching position is as the Head of a Behavioral Science Department at a major Boston University.
My fellow accomplished comrades and I continually debrief about this. It's not that we're ego-maniacs needing constant pats or glorification. We're just tired and frustrated with these way-too-frequent types of incidences. And we hate that it not only happens to us but far too many based solely on appearance. We want everyone to be valued and respected. We want assumptions to be dismantled and replaced with something more positive and productive sometime in the very near future.
We fall prey to these strong implicit bias currents due to our longstanding tradition of keeping women (and many other groups) confined to a handful of oversimplified behaviors, roles, and identities. Banaji and Greenwald, with worldwide colleagues, have developed an Implicit Attitude Test to help us dig deeper and pinpoint our unconscious bias. The tests help us pop our ugly bias pimples. Skinny vs. fat. Young vs. Old. Male vs. Female. White vs. Black, Gay vs. Straight, Able-bodied vs. Disabled. Implicit bias is sneaky--both right in our face and deeply hidden within. It begs our attention.
Take my friend, Laura, for example. She works at a renowned hospital in Boston as a nuclear radiologist. Knows the introductory drill like clockwork. When she mentions she works in this hospital, 9 out of 10 times, she's assumed to be a nurse. It's almost always a sure bet. Sometimes they think she's a receptionist, or a phlebotomist too. Their first guess is never that she's a top-notch radiologist.
Another colleague gets the classic head nod, robotic smile, and dismissive good-for-you-pat-on-head when she reveals she's an academic dean. She says they might even think she's lying. My friends in STEM fields get a lot of silence when they bring up their professional life. No curious questions, no meaningful dialogue, just blank stares and quick-conversational-exit-strategies.
By the way, this isn't just the gripe of women. Ask my African American friend James what happens to him when he's out and about without his suit and tie on. Or my LGBTQ friends who are under constant scrutiny. Or someone over 50 trying to navigate the prevailing workplace replace-you-with-the-latest-without-blinking mentality. Try being disabled or having a learning difference or not having the money or youthfulness to look like you stepped out of Pinterest in this appearance-tells-us-you're-okay world. Or being teased your entire life for being too light or dark or too short or tall or too fat or thin. The dominant groupthink wants to swallow up anyone falling outside of their prescriptive narrow bounds of acceptance.
The default is to want to gang up against the Dr. Peacocks in the world and have some sort of bash-fest. I want to rise above it, but truthfully, the blend of arrogance and ignorance provokes me. I've worked really hard. I want to be respected. I don't want to be called a "cute girl" when I am an adult professional woman.
My anti-good ol'-boys-club instincts send me raging, for sure. Bring me to a state of instant Zen amnesia. But this isn't just me vs. Dr. Peacock. Or you vs. some other character who insults your integrity. It's bigger than us. This is social conditioning at it's finest. We have a lot of difficult history to overcome.
I could easily spend my time stewing, or shaking my fists, but I'm not convinced that will do much good (in fact, it may bring greater harm). And, the truth of us, I have my own bias too. It's entrenched in our fabric. We've got to get this poison to rise to the surface so we can skim it off and flush it away. Assumptions damage our collective power.
I have a novel idea: Maybe, instead of fighting, we can work together to help each other out with this. We need to acknowledge:
1. We all have bias. Whether yellow shorts, freckles, wrinkles, height, weight, a wheelchair, skin color, a person appearing "too feminine" or "masculine" or any other outward sign of "difference," our first tendency is often to assign judgment. Implicit bias is part of being human. We are all guilty as charged. Understanding this is the first step towards improving.
2. There's no such thing as Your Average Jane. (or Joe, for that matter). Stop with the boxing-in. It's just not productive, and you'll end up dead wrong. Resist the urge to categorize and lump sum people into neat, precise categories. Try "and/both" instead of you're either "this or that" contingency. We can be both smart and beautiful, invested parents and uber career-driven, brilliant and vulnerable, feminine and masculine, powerful and nurturing, serious and silly, and more. We have many sides, stories, and identities. When we move beyond limited social constructs, we are far better off.
3. It's not productive to patronize one another. Yes, an accomplished woman, or anyone who has been historically marginalized or oppressed because of race, religion, age, gender, social class, ability, or sexual orientation has overcome odds and continues to wade through institutionalized ism's — but s/he is not some novelty or token role model and doesn't need you to treat her/him like s/he is some big success story.
4. What is spoken and unspoken matters. Don't fall silent when you learn about what we do or what we hold central to our identity. Be curious. Ask questions. Really listen. Don't let it threaten your ego. Allow your preconceptions to be disrupted. And please, whatever you do, don't call us girl, darling, honey, sweetie, or some other nickname unless we are 10 years old or under (and even then, be sure that's okay) or for some reason, we explicitly tell you to. Let your word choices signify genuine curiosity and respect. Otherwise, you run the risk of demeaning us, and looking not-so-swift in the process.
5. It takes more than a few tries. Go back to the drawing board. Test yourself. Reflect critically on your blanket judgments. Take more than a few implicit bias tests. It begins with understanding your blind spots. When bias emerges, challenge yourself to dig deeper and do better. It's a process. It's hard. It's worth investing in.
6. We need all hands on deck. This isn't just a women's issue, or that of any disenfranchised or marginalized group, but our collective concern. We seriously disrupt human progress when we stay stuck in the mire of fixed categories. Bias and "ism"s hurt all of us. Our world is more polarized than ever, and there's less and less thoughtful dialogue unfolding. What would happen if we stopped trying to subscribe to notions of power and privilege and better than and starting valuing each other's varied possibilities?
7. It'd help if we took a cue from Aretha: R-e-s-p-e-c-t everyone you meet. Assume they are important. Everyone is.