Unconscious Bias and Microaggressions

by Kathleen McLean, Kathleen McLean CEO

Dear friends,

I hope each one of you're enjoying this sunny summer. I am loving it thus far. Please check out the article on unconscious bias and microaggressions.

How many times have you said, " I don't have a prejudiced bone in my body"? I love everyone  the same way. After all, "I have a diverse scope of friends". My friends are Asian, Black, young, old and the list continues.  OK, so you believe you're bias free? Before you respond,  let's review the following definition:

Unconscious Bias: Refers to a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making  quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.
(ECU: 2013 Unconscious bias in higher education)

During the school  break in February 2016, I took my 12 year old son and his two dear friends roller skating.  I started to survey the scene because I wanted a full body photo of myself with the children. I was in conversation with a baby boomer (1946-1964), and I asked him to take the photo. Immediately, I heard a voice in my head yell at me ," He will not be able to use your iPhone because of his age". I pushed passed the voice and I said to myself,  he will be the one to take the photo.  Interestingly enough this man was a pro; he suggested I pose in different directions if I want my photos to look good.

  1. Can you think of a time when you made an assumption about someone  because of their race, gender or age and you  turned out to be wrong? I have one more example that stands out in my mind.  Over ten years ago, my sister and I were in Brooklyn NY lost, searching for the funeral home my cousins' service was going to be held. I was anxious/worried that we would miss the service because we truly had no idea where we were going.
  2. Every time I stopped for a traffic light on the way to pay respects to my cousin.   I believed men were better at directions then women were, therefore I only asked men for directions.  We were more lost then we were before as the men directed us incorrectly. Finally, I asked a woman. Oh my goodness, she was amazing. She also let me know, I was headed in the complete opposite direction of the funeral home. She knew exactly where the funeral home was,  the precise number of lights we would cross and the turns we would need to make. In addition, she gave us very clear landmarks. You see colleagues, unconscious bias is just that, unconscious. It sneaks into your subconscious without warning, and it is a hindrance to you.
  3. How many people have you not promoted because of  your unconscious bias?
  4. How many people have you decided you will not allow in your friend circle because of your  unconscious bias ?
  5. How many people have you not hired because of your unconscious bias?  
  6. If you're a breathing, living human being, you're not exempt from unconscious bias. I implore you to be aware of it, when it smacks you right in the face, smack it back. Declare, I am choosing to think the opposite of what I know to be true. Don't ALLOW unconscious bias to rob you of the very best opportunities to connect with those who may be different then you're!!!!!

Have you ever heard the term micro-aggression before? I recall a friend shared the term with me at a gathering. I immediately rushed home and googled it. I was excited that I could put a name to the many snubs, insults, and disparaging comments many individuals have shared with me during conversations and trainings I have completed in business environments.

The microaggression that came flooding in my memory was the snub from my professor in my undergraduate program at Buffalo State College. We were having a conversation about me applying for a Master's program. My professor proceeded to tell me that because I was a minority that I wouldn't do well on standardized test. I froze inside, and I said nothing. I was in absolute SHOCK. This was just not any professor, up until that time, he was my favorite professor. It took the wind out of me, and those words ringed defeat to my soul, spirit and body.

Micro-aggressions fall into  various themes, please review an abbreviated list below:

  1. Theme - Ascription of Intelligence - Assigning intelligence to a person of color or a woman based on his/her race/gender. Microaggresion example - "You are a credit to your race". Message - People of color are generally not as intelligent as Whites.
  2. Theme -  Denial of  Individual Racism - A statement made when bias is denied. "I'm not a racist. I have several Black friends." Message - I could never be racist because I have friends of color.
  3. Theme - Myth of Meritocracy - Statements which assert that race or gender does not play a role in life successes , for example in issues like faculty demographics . Message - "Of course he"ll get tenure, even though he hasn't published much-he's Black. Message - People of color are given extra unfair benefits because of their race.
  4. Theme - Alien in One's Own Land - When Asian Americans, Latino Americans and others who look different or are named differently from the dominant culture are assumed to be foreign born - "Where are you from and where were you born?"
  5. I think each and everyone of us can make more of an effort to see people beyond the color of their skin, their gender, and who they love. Let us all be more compassionate and use the acronym below in our delay conversations:
  6. T - Is it True?
  7. H - Is it Helpful?
  8. I - Is it Important?
  9. N - Is it Necessary?
  10. K - Is it Kind?

Adapted from Sue, Derald Wing, Microaggressions in Everyday Life : Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, Wiley & Sons, 2010