Unconscious Bias: The Gatekeeper of Racism and Discrimination
Only a change of heart and mindset will make a difference
I will never forget the red flushed face of my client, Mike, a white male that I was representing in a wrongful employment termination lawsuit. We had just finished driving from Santa Ana, California to Los Angeles for his deposition to be taken by the law firm defending the company that fired him.
On our way to the deposition, we got on the subject of race relations in America. I shared with him some of the racial experiences I had encountered during my life from growing up as a very poor Black boy in South Texas and even after I had become an attorney and living in California.
Some of the experiences involved the fact that I often was assumed to be White when speaking on the telephone and when I met the persons later I could visibly see the shock and surprise on their faces.
This was a revelation to Mike. His response was “I can’t believe that kind of stuff is still happening today.” Mind you, this occurred in the mid-1990s. As I write this article it is now the year 2020.
I said to him “Mike, I have spoken with the defense attorneys for your former employer on several occasions but we’ve never met. I wouldn’t be surprised if when we finally meet them today, they will be surprised that you have a Black lawyer.” He laughed and said it wouldn’t make any difference and he doubted that ever crossed the defense attorney’s mind.
We arrived and zoomed up to the top floor of a very prestigious law firm’s office. We approached the receptionist and I greeted her and said “I’m Roy Landers and I am here with my client for his scheduled deposition.”
She acknowledged us and had us take a seat in the firm’s waiting room and informed the defense attorney that Mr. Landers and his client are here for the deposition.
Mike and I sat down. Keep in mind, the attorney had never seen me or Mike in person. We were both dressed in business attire, coat, and tie included.
When the defense attorney (a White male) came out to greet us and take us back to the deposition room, he strode casually up to Mike and said “good morning Mr. Landers, nice to finally meet you.” Mike’s flushed red face I described earlier immediately became visible.
Mike’s eyes narrowed in squint and with a glare on his face he “retorted, I am not Mr. Landers. I am his client. He pointed to me and said, “This is my lawyer Mr. Landers.” The defense lawyer immediately apologized and realized what he just did.
I made light of it and just moved on but Mike was furious. He couldn’t believe what had just happened. Rather than asking which of us was Mr. Landers, the lawyer had assumed that Mike, (the “White man”) was the lawyer and I was the client.
After the deposition, Mike was still disturbed and I explained to him that this was a classic case of bias based on race. Perhaps it was unconscious bias, as the term is now used.
Unconscious or not, it was an assumption that lies at the heart of what is rampant in America right now — raging racism that is tearing the nation apart.
This article is about unconscious bias and how, in this writer’s mind, it has become the gatekeeper of racism. It also covers effective ways to combat it and opens the gateway to getting rid of its insidious and destructive effects.
What Is Unconscious Bias?
First, let’s start with what is bias? This will help to understand the concept of “unconscious bias.”
Researchers and credible educational institutes that have studied bias, like the University of California San Francisco state:
“Bias is a prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person, or group compared with another usually in a way that’s considered to be unfair. Biases may be held by an individual, group, or institute and can have negative or positive consequences.”
There are two types of biases. (1) Conscious bias (also known as explicit bias) and (2) Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias)
Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.
According to a report by the American Bar Association, and a reference therein to The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, implicit bias or unconscious bias is defined as:
“The attitude or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated in involuntary and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.”
Biases, conscious, or unconscious are an equal opportunity occurrence. They exist in every race and culture. They exist and are exhibited across the spectrum of human existence including, race, gender, age, religion, sexual orientation, weight, gender identity physical disabilities, disabled persons, variations of skin tone and color, and many other characteristics.
Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and usually does not match with one’s conscious values.
Indulge with me for a moment and follow this scenario. Just go with the flow of the description and pretend a day in your life goes as follows:
You have made plans to attend a very important conference in another city that can change the rest of your career. You are running late to the airport to catch a plane to take you there. As you rush to the curbside, a uniformed airport porter rushes to assist you and quickly helps you check your baggage. You tip him and rush to the line to get to the plane.
Just minutes before they close the door you arrive to get on the plane and with a sigh of relief you let out a breath of air. Then, the pilot steps out of the cockpit and as you are going to your seat the pilot greets you with a big smile and says “hello, welcome aboard.”
You arrive in your city of destination and that evening you go out and have a scrumptious meal. At the next table, you observe a couple happily celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary.
The next morning you walk into the conference to hear one of the top-rated speakers in your industry with several years of experience and accomplishments and you eagerly await to hear the message that might change the rest of your life.
Now that you’ve read the scene, honestly think about and recall what images appeared to you about the persons described in the scenario.
What color or race was the uniformed airport porter? Did you picture him as Black? When you got on the plane, in the nick of time, and the pilot greeted you was the pilot White? Was the couple celebrating their anniversary two men?
When the renowned speaker took the stage in your mind’s eye was it a female?
There is no right or wrong answer to the above. It is just an exercise to show you how “unconscious bias” sneaks into our everyday lives and causes us to react and make decisions without even thinking about it.
This is precisely the problem with unconscious bias. It permeates our decisions based upon what we are used to experiencing and what the order of our existence has been like.
If a person has grown up and only experienced things from a White perspective without a lot of exposure to Black culture, Hispanics, or culture different from them then the decisions made about them will be influenced by the values of where they’ ve come from whether they are right or wrong.
The same applies to a Black, Hispanic, or other person looking at a White person. This is difficult to combat and easy to fall prey to and therein lies the problem.
Unconscious bias makes choices for persons that are based on racist, sexist, and other negative choices while consciously they may feel they are a good person and would never intentionally make such a choice.
This is what I call the “gatekeeper effect” of unconscious bias. It keeps the doors closed to fairness, equality, diversity, and inclusion and is difficult to root out because the persons perpetrating it either don’t realize it or if they do they aren’t motivated to consciously do anything about it.
It is any wonder then that America is on the brink of destroying itself because it has a serious and continuous race problem that is sustained in large part because of unconscious bias?
What Are the Effects of Unconscious Bias?
Unconscious bias is rampant in every corner of society. It’s like the wind. It blows and nobody knows its origin, it can’t be seen, it has a force of its own and its velocity can destroy.
Unconscious bias in the workplace
Employers lose some 64 billion dollars annually because of workplace unconscious bias. This is based on the cost of losing and replacing more than 2 million American workers due to unfairness and discrimination. This is just in the replacement of employees on an annual basis.
Where employees stay and continue to work, yet not fully engage in productivity because of unconscious bias, the loss to companies is 450 billion to 550 billion per year. Based on a Gallop study, employees who perceive bias are nearly three times as likely to be disengaged at work.
Unconscious bias leads to conscious bias decisions
The recent horror stories of how Blacks have been treated in retail establishments highlight the effect of how unconscious bias colors rational thought processes and rolls into racial bias and escalates into racist treatment that perpetuates hatred and discrimination.
Retail store incidents point out the devastating effects that unconscious bias can lead to. Starbucks closed all of its stores for one day to train its employees on how to deal with unconscious bias when Black patrons showed up as customers and ended up being arrested simply because they were Black.
The one-day shutdown is estimated to have costed the coffee chain 10 million dollars. Nordstrom had a similar incident. Bias whether unconscious or not is expensive.
Our nation is in a downward spiral because of racial hatred based upon nonsensical perceptions that Whites are better than Blacks. Rational and clear thinking Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians, and other cultural groups know better. However, the status quo will continue unless they stand together for change.
Police Brutality and Violence Against Black People Is Part of Unconscious Bias.
The George Floyd incident did not just happen. That was a culmination of years of conditioning and bias bred into a system and into the police officer that killed him. Many (certainly not all) police are raised in backgrounds and environments that foster bias toward Black people.
I know this from a personal standpoint. As a Black man, I have lived and had to survive it. I will never forget the opportunity I had once to sit on a panel to interview prospective police officers for a large city in California. I made it a point to ask the prospects about what they would do in circumstances of patrolling parts of the city where the population was predominately Black or other than White.
Many of them answered quite candidly, they would rather not be in those neighborhoods and would not like to patrol them because they didn’t have a good perception of Black people. I did my best to make sure that they never became police officers. Unfortunately, I know that some of them did.
This scene has been repeated over and over again all across America. Police are interviewed and hired harboring hatred and biases against people of color and releasing it when the opportunity presents itself.
The results, unfortunately, brought about George Floyd’s untimely demise and erupted the volcanic and pent up passion of Blacks long-held in suppression, depression, and despair. The proverbial chickens have come home to roost. America is paying the consequences.
This is the effect of unconscious bias.
Can Unconscious Bias Be Fixed?
The short answer is no. However, it can be regulated just like any habit.
You can take unconscious bias tests, but they won’t fix the problem. They just let you know that the problem exists, especially along racial, gender, or cultural lines.
A recent article in Fast Company Magazine opines that unconscious bias cannot be fixed because training does not stick with a person who has been indoctrinated in bias for years and then is expected to make a change.
The one thing that does work is a process that requires a person to examine his or her behavior. You see, the problem with unconscious bias is it will continue unless the unexamined behavior is called out.
The unfavorable bias (behavior) must be examined. There must be a mindset of transforming equality established and then it must be measured by the following:
· Do your work. You have to make a conscious effort to check yourself before deciding on someone, especially when it involves race, gender, sexual orientation, or even a person or persons with physical disabilities.
· Make connections with people that don’t look like you or think like you. This provides the experience of seeing things from other points of view.
· If you have privilege use it to create equity. Justice isn’t achieved by sitting on the sideline.
There is an old African proverb that says:
“I am who I am because of who we all are. We are who we are because of who I am.”
Make a Commitment to Examine Your Unconscious Bias and Make Better Choices
To change a thought process it takes a concerted mindset. We are battling a vicious cancer that is consuming our country. It’s the cancer of racism. It has infected our vital organs and is in stage four status. It’s critical. We must cut it out now before it metastasizes and shuts down the heartbeat of America.
The Bible weighs in on how to deal with unconscious bias. Wisdom dictates that we should take heed:
“Romans 12:2: And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”
Christ’s teaching was and is that one should bring every thought that is detrimental to doing right into captivity and that a person’s thoughts are the total sum of what he or she truly is:
“For as he thinketh in his heart so is he…” Proverbs 23:7
Commit to advance and support, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Examine your thoughts before making decisions about people who don’t look like, act like, or think like you.
Take a pledge — a call to action and make this commitment:
“I pledge to check my bias, speak up for others, and show up for all.”