I have recently been working on a project that will bring a lot of value to a client of mine, and in the process I have become more self-aware of some changes I need to make in my own journey.
Here is the background story:
My client asked me to develop a 90-minute training on the subject of Implicit Bias.
The project sounded interesting to me for several reasons. First, I have not done anything with the topic since graduate school. Second, I have been reading in the mornings from a little book by Parker Palmer called, “On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, & Getting Old.” He has been speaking into my life as only Parker Palmer can about some baggage I am carrying around that I no longer need. These things started as unconscious biases, but through the work of Palmer, I have become more keenly aware of them.
Now for this story to make sense you have to know, and you can probably tell, I am a huge Parker Palmer fan. I read everything he writes, and most of it two or three times. There is just something about how he speaks truth through his own journey in life that I cannot get enough of.
As I work on this project, I am researching the topic of Implicit Bias. The implicit part means unconscious, so what I am NOT talking about are biases we realize we have. One example of a known bias I hold is that if I have a choice between any kind of ethnic food I will always choose Asian, specifically Thai…even over tacos, which is not easy for me to say. When eating ethnic food, I realize I have a bias toward Chicken Pad Thai, Coconut Rice, and Panang Curry!
Implicit biases, however, are unconscious, inflexible beliefs about a particular category of people. Implicit bias is basing our thinking on people not as individuals, but as a nameless, faceless group. Implicit bias is not what I like or don’t like about an individual person, but more about an attitude toward an entire group of people.
To familiarize yourself with the idea of Implicit Bias and how it might be affecting your thinking, try this little thought experiment.
Record the first thought that comes to your head when you read the following list of words:
A person in a wheel chair
An immigrant from Mexico
A single mom with 4 kids
A person from New York City
As you completed this little thought experiment, a couple of things can happen:
If you know someone who fits the description in some way, you use them as a substitute for an entire group of people. This could be positive or negative. For me, I do not personally know any single mothers with 4 kids. But I do have a mom who had 4 kids, who stayed at home until all the kids were out of the house. My personal experience then becomes part of the frame that shapes my thinking about single mothers with 4 kids: that they should stay home with the kids until they are grown. Again, not a proud moment for me, but one that I have to realize is shaping how I view the world. I put all moms with 4 kids in a category in my mind that this is how they should all be, because this is what my experience has been.
If you do not know someone in this category personally, then you likely have had some experience along the way that will be shaping your thoughts. For example, when I think of a person in a wheel chair, the first thought I have is “they slow me down in the airport.” I am not proud of this thought, but this is an Implicit Bias I have. After all, isn’t the entire world about me? If I see someone in a wheel chair, I have a knee jerk thought reaction that their time is not as valuable as mine. I just really want to make myself puke when I write this.
Okay, I am tired of self-disclosing right now so you can play with the rest of these categories of people to decide for yourself if you are proud of how you responded. The more honest you are with yourself, the more you can change your thinking with some self-awareness and dedicated thinking.
Now that I have completely exposed myself to some unconscious biases that I have…enter Parker Palmer into my life to bring some motivation for me to think differently.
In the book I mentioned above, on page 154, Palmer writes about self-awareness and self-examination. He states, “…this call [for self-examination and self-awareness] goes back as far as Socrates, who believed that the unexamined life is not worth living.” Palmer adds, “the unexamined life is a threat to others.”
Ouch! That one hurts.
Especially since I do not mean to intentionally do harm to Mexican immigrants or single moms with 4 kids, or people in wheel chairs.
But the fact is, I might be harming them. And this is what I need to go to war with.
Because my implicit biases are unconscious, it is only by bringing them to my consciousness and going to war with them that I can make necessary changes in my life.
My Recipe for Change
I am following a three step process in confronting my unconscious biases:
I am really trying to watch out for unconscious bias in my life. I am trying to become more aware of when I categorize or group people and then apply wholesale thoughts about them to my situation.
Once I recognize that I am judging people by groups, I am trying to become more empathetic toward them. To really ask myself what it would be like to be them? Christian Kaisers, in his book, The Empathic Brain, writes that more empathic individuals activate their own actions more strongly than less empathic people while watching the actions of others. We need to practice flexing our empathic muscle to get better at it.
Up until this point I have not taken any action. The only way I build stronger muscle is to do something positive to change my thoughts. Dr. Sondra Thiederman, in her book 3 Keys to Defeating Unconscious Bias, says “attitude follows behavior.” I need to be specific in seeing people as individuals, and then I need to take it a step further and get to know them. If I do not know any moms with 4 kids, then I need to find a few of them and learn what it is like in their world. If I don’t know any Mexican immigrants, then I need to seek them out and ask what it is like to be them.
Thank you to my client and to Parker Palmer. You all have rocked my world, hopefully for the better.