Not a Bigot: How Do You Know?

In diversity and inclusion work, one of the touchy conversations to have with people — hardworking, loving, professional, kind, altruistic, smart, socially conscious, globally minded, and visionary individuals — is informing them that they are not quite as capable as they attest to being.

Chances are if you go outside and ask a hundred people a series of questions about their smarts, level of professionalism, academic, driving, and leadership ability, popularity, and health, a clear majority from around 70 percent or higher will consistently rate themselves well above average. The problem is that most cannot by definition be the smartest, healthiest, better than average driver, the best leader, and most popular. Statistically, half of us have to be below average, all above-average cannot live in the same small town, attend the same college or urban enclave, and live in every region of the country. Not. Possible.

In psychology, proficiency at pretty much anything follows four stages of competency. Basically, a person starts off NOT knowing that they do not know or what is called unconscious incompetence. It is a blissful and, sometimes, wanton, ignorance with no foreseeable end in sight. However, at some point in life, people realize, “you know what? I don’t know.” It is the same experience I had with my son when he was at the inquisitive age of five years old. After being riddled with a blazing litany of questions from “why is water wet?” to the favorite “why is the sky blue?”, I admitted in disgust, “I do not know.”

Admitting and accepting ignorance and lack of experience does not need to be difficult. To the contrary, it can provide a real sense of relief. Acknowledging that “deficit” in knowledge can spring a person to try out new skills or have new experiences. Recognizing a deficit is part of the second stage: conscious incompetence, or knowing you do not know.

If you thought it might be hard admitting ignorance, one of the potential big challenges is learning a new skill, expanding knowledge, or changing attitudes. Remember learning how to drive a car or ride a bike? There is a point where you hyper-focus on every detail, maybe putting two feet on the brakes to ensure you do not get in a car wreck during your first ride on the road or stiffening up as you start to peddle on your “it’s new to me” bike with a parent or good friend monitoring your every move.

Becoming competent at most behaviors requires concentration and self-monitoring with a conscious attention to learn a new skill. This conscious competence is liken to a young woman’s first steps in high heels, a bit shaky and awkward, on the world cat walk when nothing seems to be quite right.

The final and fourth stage called unconscious competence reflects a set of behaviors practiced to the point where they seem like second nature requiring little awareness. For experienced car drivers, there are those days while making their way home in traffic when they cannot remember after crossing the intersection if they had a green, yellow, or red light. There are those brief moments where it is not clear if you ran the red light or not.

After a time, you realize that the light was green, but your mind nearly turned off because you did not need to maintain the same level of mental vigilance to monitor the situation. Driving is usually achieved with little effort leaving it hard to explain to others. Hence, the frustration parents have explaining driving or a dance to their sons and daughters. It cannot be that hard, now really?

The four stages of competency are complicated by a series of little human judgment errors or cognitive biases. For the purposes of this blog, there are a couple of special interests, when applied to cultural competency work, that help explain how nearly 90 percent of people tend to overestimate their cultural competency.

A common cognitive bias is superiority bias, better-than-average or illusory superiority, which allows people to overestimate positive attributes and underestimate negative qualities and abilities. Accompanying superiority bias is another unconscious operation called bias blind spot, which refers to rating yourself less vulnerable to biases in general than the average person.

For example, when asked to rate their cultural competency, people in general rate themselves higher than average. When the superiority bias concept is explained to the same people, they tend to also underestimate how vulnerable they are to the cognitive bias. Consequently, people may not know that they don’t know and assume they are like most others. Additionally, some people may not be able to accurately access how vulnerable they are to the bias because it is equally hard to see beyond their blind spot.

In practical terms, a person could be a subtly biased or bigoted toward another group. For our discussion, let’s not concern ourselves with the specifics because it really is not important. Let’s establish without a doubt, a person is a overtly or subtly biased- pick your poison. When you ask them whether they are a racist, sexist, homophobic, ageist, or other biased feature, people in general will likely assess that they are better than average and likely not biased in these different ways. If anything, they may see themselves having higher than average cultural sensitivity and awareness compared to others.

When made aware that they are subtly or overtly biased, the first reaction is denial for many. If you also explain to the same people that it is common to overestimate positive qualities and underestimate negative qualities, they will tend to subjectively assess that they are not vulnerable to the bias. Their conclusion? I’m not a bigot.

Of course, this example is oversimplified because there are plenty of reasons why they are not biased. The question that people may want to ask more importantly is, “How do you know?”

Subjectively, we are going to assess our behavior and thinking favorably. It is not necessarily because of some evil intention. (Insert evil laugh here.) Remember, we are talking about smart, logical, loving, socially conscious, and professional people with a quality education and real life experience. Sometimes they have diverse friends and women, too, in their circle.

Well, it’s complicated.

Jarune Uwujaren wrote an article about racism within the queer community. Because of experiences with discrimination and other ill-treatment, it is sometimes assumed that white gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people are incapable or less likely to be racist. Maybe their experience informs them to be more accepting and understanding of others. At times, you may hear a white gay person suggest they know what it’s like to be black because they experience discrimination, too. Many black people resolutely respond to this concept with disappointment and maybe anger because it is not true in their minds. There are also some homophobic people in the black community who deepen their resistance in believing there is any connection between the queer and black communities struggles.

There is a connection actually. The connection, however, does not automatically prevent queer white people from being racists. The real issue here is a more recent concept called intersectionality. Researchers posit that the various forms of oppression and bias function interdependently in a dynamic way. In the past, people may have thought of issues of gender, race, economic status, sexuality, ability, and religious beliefs among others with their subsequent cultures, identities, and experiences of bigotry working independently.

For example, during the civil rights movement, the primary issue was race for many while issues of gender, sexual orientation, and other concerns seemed to be ignored. In reality, for many, these different aspects of our multiple identities (not in a psychological dysfunctional way) and cultures serve to enrich our understanding of the world and may explain the differences and commonalities we experience at points in our shared lives.

The problem is that sometimes we make sweeping generalizations overestimating what we know or whether we behave in biased ways towards specific groups miscalculating our vulnerability to superiority bias and bias blind spot. Our subjective, heart-felt knowing is usually not enough. Even a logical process can be insufficient to determine a person’s cultural intelligence due to the lack of a meaningful criterion of what it takes to be culturally sensitive. Experiences of discrimination and hate in one area of life do not always lead to understanding of another person’s experience with similar problems.

In my cultural competency work, assessment provides an outside measure to provide better insight about a person’s lived experience. Although we have our friends and loved ones giving feedback, the intercultural experiences people have on a regular basis may make it hard to discern how prepared a person will be to manage cultural differences. Good people struggle with differences in cultures all the time. The New York Times did a piece on The Good, Racist People on this topic. The challenge is summarized by the following words dealing racism towards African Americans:

“The promise of America is that those who play by the rules, who observe the norms of the “middle class,” will be treated as such. But this injunction is only half-enforced when it comes to black people, in large part because we were never meant to be part of the American story. . .
I am trying to imagine a white president forced to show his papers at a national news conference, and coming up blank. I am trying to imagine a prominent white Harvard professor arrested for breaking into his own home, and coming up with nothing. I am trying to see Sean Penn or Nicolas Cage being frisked at an upscale deli, and I find myself laughing in the dark. It is worth considering the messaging here. It says to black kids: “Don’t leave home. They don’t want you around.” It is messaging propagated by moral people.”

One of the first steps toward developing cultural competency is confidently identifying what we may not know about ourselves. Without knowing clearly what the problem is, it is difficult and inefficient to sort out where to get started. If a person gets ahead of themselves, they may get exhausted or become unintentionally vulnerable in intercultural situations. The frustration can ultimately lead to feeling stifled where they are not able to make progress.

If an individual underestimates their cultural competency, similar feelings of frustration and agitation can develop out of boredom and lack of a challenge to move forward with nowhere to go. Any good cultural competency assessment will point a person in the right direction to avoid the aforementioned pitfalls.

An assessment will also confirm whether a person is overestimating their cultural competency. The Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI) is such an instrument. Overestimating is a point of conversation that allow us to sort out where a person’s aspirations lay. Although their primary orientation or mindset may not be as sophisticated as they believed, it may suggest that they have high aspirations to be more cultural competent and further consideration is needed on what may be preventing them from moving forward. A thorough one-on-one interview and qualitative analysis usually provide other indicators of what work is needed.

Over time, people can eventually acknowledge and appreciate the dynamic nature of having multiple identities and cultures. People allow themselves a lens to see the world differently, which also sometimes reveals blind spots to the other worlds around us. Multiple identities such as male, heterosexual, Asian, working-class, atheist, college educated, and so on can give people a better sense of a their personality. Each identity comes out of a cultural context that intersects to create something unique. Through this more sophisticated cultural competency, a set of transferable skills to create innovation, improve problem solving skills, and increase revenue can be accessed more readily.


Originally published at on March 3, 2013.

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