Editor’s note: The fight against prejudice and racism is a long one that starts within. As mothers, runners, and people, there are steps we can take starting with ourselves.
Hidden Biases Uncovered
I was maybe 23 when it happened. I was standing in a parking garage elevator in Charlotte, NC. I had just arrived after from driving down from Virginia where I lived to meet my boyfriend and his friends at a bar. It was kinda late. I already felt a little uncomfortable in a new city alone.
Then a group of young black men, probably a few years older, got on the elevator. My heart started pounding. Blood rushed to my head. I could feel the flight mode activate inside. But I had nowhere to go. I had completely started panicking, afraid that they would attack me, rape me, rob me…
In truth, I don’t even think they knew I was standing there with them.
The next day I started thinking about my reaction. Would I have had the same internal response if it was a group of white men? Asian? Hispanic? Eastern European? Would I have had the same response if the men looked like they came from a different socioeconomic class? I realized this information makes a difference. I had a hidden bias against those that look different from me.
What is hidden bias?
A hidden bias, also known as implicit or unconscious bias, is the tendency to unknowingly rely on information that reinforces stereotypes. It’s called hidden or implicit because we don’t know that we have them–and they influence our decisions whether or not we mean for them to. These biases are formed throughout our lives from personal experiences, comments we hear, or media we consume. And, we rely on them to help us make sense of the world around us: According to a University of Virginia study, we are confronted with 11,000,000 pieces of information in a given situation. Yet, our brains can only process up to 40 pieces at one time. So, we streamline the process relying on past experiences and perceptions rather than the actual data in front of us. The result? Hidden bias.
The consequences of hidden biases.
The problem with hidden biases is that they reinforce damaging stereotypes, making way for racial inequality–the imbalance of the distribution of power, economic resources, and opportunities. For example, every time a hiring manager passes over a resume because it sounds “black,” they collectively push black people into a lower socio-economic class. Or, every time someone posts on Next Door that they saw a “suspicious black male” in their neighborhood, it reinforces the stereotype that black men are dangerous, leading to more arrests. Small actions put together have big consequences.
Consider these stats:
According to the NAACP, African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites. Three percent more black people are without jobs right now than the national average. And, almost 35% less black people own homes in America than white people. These disparities are influenced by hidden biases.
How to identify your hidden biases.
So, if we all have hidden biases but we don’t know we have them–how can we find out what they are? There are tests online you can take, but shedding your implicit biases is a conscious and ongoing process.
That’s why I linked up with Rebecca Weinand, a health and wellness coach, to give us practical steps as to how we can make a change starting with ourselves. Rebecca offers 5 steps to getting rid of these biases.
1. IDENTIFY A FOCUS.
Hidden biases can be hard to uncover as they often appear through subtle actions, regular patterns of speech, unrecognized thoughts, or even moments of inaction.
Beginning the journey to personal transformation starts with a specific intention. Identify an area in your life that feels accessible to begin exploring your hidden biases, such as your interactions in public, when you hear racist comments, or how you talk to your children about racism.
2. PAY ATTENTION.
Change doesn’t happen all at once, especially when we are trying to change behaviors that are rooted so deeply, we may not even know they exist! Rather than trying to change all at once, intentionally notice for a week your inner dialogue and responses, especially when you’re interacting in your focus area.
Some helpful questions to start uncovering where your hidden biases lie include:
- When do I find myself responding defensively?
- When do my words or actions have unintended consequences?
- How do I respond when I see or hear things that make me uncomfortable? That I know are wrong?
- How do my words and actions support equity?
- How do my words and actions imply I support inequity?
Awareness is the first step to change. Once you become aware of something, you can’t be unaware ever again. Make an effort to notice all the ways in which your perceptions are subliminally shaped.
Set aside time to purposefully reflect. Be willing to question your words, actions, and inactions. When you’re reflecting on your week of paying attention, consider:
- What did you learn about yourself?
- How would you describe your inner dialogue?
- How do your words, actions, thoughts, and inactions align with your values?
- What needs to change?
Digging into your own hidden biases can be uncomfortable. You already made the choice to notice – make a commitment to push through the discomfort.
Push past not only WHAT you want to change, but also to start thinking about HOW you would like to change. Maybe you recognize you get uneasy when a person of color sits next to you at the coffee shop. Or you want to make sure your kids are in class with kids from the “right” kind of neighborhood. You’ve recognized it – HOW do you want to start changing these thoughts and biases?
A few tangible, actionable ways to change include:
- Get to know people as individuals, rather than groups. Stereotypes and biases often lead us to define people based on a group, rather than on a personal, individual level.
- Identify your triggers for biases and stereotypes. PAUSE when you find yourself in those triggering moments and work consciously to change your hidden bias.
- Take a moment to see life from another person’s perspective. Do you know what it’s like to be a black man in America? To live in a neighborhood avoided by white people? Consider how you might feel if you were in the same position. Or, better yet, form a relationship with a person of color and ask them about their experiences rather than asking them what you should do.
4. SET A GOAL.
You’ve identified where in your life you want to start. You’ve noticed. You’ve reflected. Now, what do you want to do?
Dream about the person you want to be, the example you want to set for your kids, the change you want to see in the world.
- What does that look like?
- What would you be doing?
- What would you be saying?
- What would you be thinking?
Write it down. Be as specific as possible, but focus on what you can CONTROL. Goals are most effective when they align with a behavior. For example, “I will be anti-racist” is an outcome that doesn’t really define what you want to DO. A goal such as, “I will speak up when my in-laws make offensive or racist comments” is a goal that focuses on a behavior you are in control of and is more likely to lead to change.
If it’s helpful, make a mantra for yourself, post a reminder, or share your goal with a friend. Find a way to hold yourself accountable as you embark on this journey of personal change.
You’ve done the hard work of self-discovery. The last step is to implement change.
Slow down. Continue to notice. When you find yourself in situations where your hidden bias may come out, pause, breathe, remember your mantra or goal, and respond before you react.
Don’t be afraid to start small. Any step towards personal change is a step towards cultural change. If it’s most comfortable to start by sitting with a more diverse group of coworkers at lunch, start there. If you feel ready to greet a stranger in public you would usually avoid, smile and wave the next time you’re out. If you want to share your new awareness with your friends and family, share away. NOTHING IS TOO SMALL.
A few important thoughts:
- Once you’ve noticed, reflected, and implemented change, the cycle can continue. Start where you’re comfortable, and then continue to expand your goal.
- Be kind to yourself – and others. Change is hard and uncomfortable. You might not get it right the first time, the second time, or the tenth time you try. KEEP TRYING, remain aware and remain open.
- Self-care is the key to change. Our unhidden biases, like most of our less than desirable behaviors, are more likely to appear when we’re exhausted or stressed. That’s because when we’re tired or stressed, we’re less effective at processing new information and rely more on unconscious patterns. Again, if your bias comes out when you’re tired, don’t give up. Acknowledge it, apologize (if necessary), notice it, let it go, and commit to continued awareness.
With the consequences of racism being pushed to the forefront this year, I’ve committed to doing what I can to eradicate the problem–starting with my own hidden biases. Every time I interact with someone, I prompt myself to pause before responding and, later, reflect on my responses. You can find your own reminder. For example, every time you do laundry, use that time to think about your reactions to new people or comb through uncomfortable situations for you. If we all do this–and we limit our kids’ exposure to these biases, together we can level the playing field and make the world a more equal and loving place to live.