The tricky relationship between unconscious biases and identity-building
A t Osedea, we constantly strive to foster an inclusive, open, and diverse culture within the office.
Your workplace probably does, too, and we’re all the better for it. So, failed attempts at posturing aside, the main problem manifests in actually following through with said objectives, as it implies unanimously agreeing on success metrics against which to evaluate our improvements.
Alas, to our knowledge, there exists no Promoting diversity — a step-by-step template.pdf (we’ve looked). Yet despite the challenges, we embarked on a quest for this elusive and ever-changing goalpost, as we knew taking action would certainly provide more meaningful results than spinning our wheels, stuck in a discourse over semantics.
And so, we formed a diversity and inclusion committee, rolled out accompanying initiatives, and began tracking our results, which you can expect an article about in the near future.
*Successful passing of the hot potato*
Amongst said initiatives was one that I found particularly informative and thought-provoking: we invited Miriam Bekkouche — CEO and Founder of The Brain Spa — to give us a talk about unconscious biases and their implications, which led to an interesting conversation at the office about how we might be seeking comfort in biases.… But before we get into that story, let’s look at a few quick definitions.
Bias, Prejudice, Stereotype, and Discrimination
The way in which our perception of reality is filtered through the lens of our past experiences and accumulated knowledge. As we all depend on biases to better understand the world around us, it is important to mention that they are not necessarily negative, despite a connotation to the contrary.
Example of a helpful bias: We encounter a fruit. Past experience tells us that its characteristics match those of some poisonous fruit, and that it, therefore, may be dangerous to consume. We don’t eat the fruit.
Example of a potentially harmful bias: We see a woman about to lift a heavy object, and because we have seen other women struggle with this task, we assume she’ll fail.
The feelings and opinions we may hold before we engage in careful mental consideration of something. As prejudice is the result of a bias, the term is usually employed when one’s judgment of an idea or person is called into question due to its impartiality or unfairness.
The generalized use of prejudice to discern, categorize, and predict an entire group’s habits based on the behavior of one or many belonging to said group.
Acting in a way that favors one party over another due to prejudice.
Biases, prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination combine to create glass walls around members of different social groups. Social in nature, most humans seek commonalities with new encounters as a way of establishing relationships. But who we may consider to be relationship-worthy hinges on our biases, and that is why they can be dangerous, especially when unchecked, as they might lead to unconscious avoidance (or worse , hostility, conflict, harassment, etc.).
Actors and spectators: the building of an identity
One colleague opened up about taking on a ‘persona’, so to speak, so as to better identify with (or self-label as belonging to) a community, and he asked whether that was problematic. In other words, he used personal biases to project an image which others would find themselves drawn to, by virtue of their own biases.
His experience is, again, nothing out of the ordinary; we all do this, through the belongings we choose to display for the world to see, and we all accept that people may make quick judgment calls based on how we portray and present ourselves (shoutout to everyone wearing suits to their interviews).
Indeed, as one may adorn himself/herself with clothing influenced by a specific subculture or religion, adopt mannerisms that may be indicative of one’s proclivities, etc., we see ourselves delving into the much broader topic of identity building.
On a much larger scale, as displays of inner turmoil surface from inside countries that are slowly re-embracing nationalistic virtues over globalism, we may find ourselves pondering the signals we are sending to potential onlookers regarding who we are, the values we hold dear, and the things we may care about. Yet, doing so implies having a shared cultural vocabulary (i.e. reference points) between ourselves and everyone else. In a way, aren’t we all depending on biases to find comfort within ourselves, as well as to better understand the world we inhabit?
When the question was asked, it occurred to me that to live in society is to be exposed (in other words, to subject ourselves to others’ biases), and that alone isn’t inherently problematic. After all, self-confidence is built from a better understanding and acceptance of one’s self. The tricky part is managing other people’s biases while hoping not to be the subject of their prejudice or discrimination, and in that sense, it requires a collective effort to make sure everyone feels involved in making our working and living environments open and inclusive.
All in all, as we began to consider the topic of unconscious biases and identity here at Osedea, we definitely found ourselves challenged to be more introspective about our inner workings, and to pay mindful attention to how our unconscious beliefs may manifest and affect those around us. Taking concrete steps towards a better future, both here at Osedea and in our respective personal lives, now seems even more daunting and potentially error-prone, but no less worthwhile.
Godspeed to us all!