Unconscious Bias: Why You Need to Be Aware

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When people in a position of privilege, ie cis, White, male for example say that they have been judged for their cis/White/maleness they are mainly speaking of the times that someone has verbally or otherwise acted in a very overt negative fashion because of their cis/White/maleness. Which is to say that they know why it happened. What they are not speaking of is the unconscious bias that marginalized groups deal with constantly. Probably because that bias generally works out in their favor.

Unconscious bias is a bias that people are unaware of and stems from the person’s background or the culture they live in. For example, if you were nipped by a dog when you were young, you may grow up to not like dogs very much even if you never think of that incident at all.

Similarly, the culture we live in supports an unconscious bias that is favorable privileged groups (white, cis, male, etc) while it supports a negative unconscious bias for marginalized groups (people of color, females, queer, etc).

Hiring managers aren’t, for the most part, sitting at desks thinking, “No darkies in my office!” any more than doctors are thinking, “Man, women are just hypochondriacs!” However, both of these groups still deal with their unconscious bias that lay the groundwork for them to look more favorably upon white applicants or to take a woman’s health complaints less seriously.

This is important because when we talk about the act of judgement to be equally as awful, we’re very much speaking about those “vocal” judgements which is to say, we’re really saying, don’t say mean things to other people (which is a good life lesson). This reaction doesn’t deal with those unconscious biases and once you take that into consideration, the scales tip firmly in one direction as far as awfulness goes.

Dealing with unconscious bias is really difficult because there is no hard evidence for the times that it happens. As a woman of color, I can never be sure that I didn’t get a job because there was a better applicant or if it was because I was too brown. No one is going to tell me that they didn’t hire me because of my race or gender (we have laws against that) but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t factor in to their ultimate choice.

Solving this problem takes a lot of active thought. It forces people to look at why they’re making choices, acting in certain ways towards people etc. in order to be sure that they aren’t fueled by these biases. People will shout that they don’t hold biases but the thing is, the person may not be racist/sexist/homophobic but the culture that we all live in very much is and we are all influenced by it.

Defeating it means confronting it. If you come from a privileged group, it means questioning not only how you handle others but how you have been handled. It means questioning how you’ve benefited from these biases and how you may have caused harm with your own. Ignoring it will not make it go away because chances are, you’re not even aware of it.

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