Unconscious biases are things we assume, take for granted, and believe are so true we don’t even notice the way they might bias our perceptions and thoughts. We all have them. They come from our personal, socialized experiences throughout our lives. Elements of our lived experience shape what we think of as good or bad, desirable or undesirable, beautiful or ugly, worthy or worthless. We believe that our perspectives are universal, normal, and correct. Unconscious bias can happen on a personal level, in a company culture, or even in a whole country.
One example of unconscious bias is how we perceive professionalism. We each have an idea of what a “professional” looks, sounds, and acts like. The history of professionalism in the US comes from companies where white men were in leadership. If you called for a “business professional” from Central Casting, you’d get some form of a white man in a suit: able-bodied, probably handsome, probably able-bodied, etc. Now that women and people of color are in leadership in companies, it makes sense that what a “professional” should look like is changing. Professional dress might include more than just men’s suits. Gender, age, and of course race might all be different. It also might make sense for professional language to change to include ethnic accents and syntax.
When you become conscious about having harbored an unconscious bias, you can decide that, yes, it does make sense that profesional clothing and language rules might change to include all the kinds of professionals that exist today. When you maintain your unconscious bias, you will argue that professional dress and language is rigidly defined already and to be professional everyone must fit into the predetermined rules.
*Small Business Pro Tip: Encourage employees to take an implicit bias test, like Project Implicit Bias by Harvard University to see where your unconscious biases lie—looking at race, gender, age, weight, disability and sexuality. Ask employees if they are comfortable to discuss their findings in small groups or teams.
- Read: “Women entrepreneurs create fake male partner to dodge sexism” in Fast Company (article, < 10 minutes).
- Watch: Saturday Night Live “Mid-Day News”, where TV anchors make all kinds of assumptions about the race of the person in each story (video, < 5 minutes).
- Unconscious Bias training is available from several different external resources. An example of one resource is Breaking the Bias.
- Read “Black tech CEO repeatedly assumed to be lower-level staff” on Bloomberg (article, < 10 minutes).
- Download and read BuiltIn’s “Guide to Racial Equality in the Workplace.” (written guide, 10-60 minutes)
White Supremacy Culture
The following overview comes from White Supremacy Culture, which is an extension of Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, Changework, 2001. The website and article provide details of the characteristics of the White Supremacy Culture and the antidotes to address them. For many of these characteristics, we have been taught they are “good,” and good as defined by a white culture. Many of these are cultural norms and are assumed or adopted by organizations without being consciously chosen or intentionally named.
The full list of characteristics can be found in this document or from their workbook, with some examples being:
- Perfectionism – It is common to draw attention to either how the person or work is inadequate. It is also common that “making a mistake is confused with being a mistake…”. Antidotes are:
- Culture of appreciation – all work and efforts are appreciated.
- Culture of learning – everyone is expected to make mistakes which leads to learning opportunities.
- Separate people from the mistakes, seeking their input on how to do things, more, better, or differently when offering criticism.
- Sense of Urgency – In a culture of continued urgency (real or perceived), it is challenging to be inclusive, with intentional decision-making and long-term consideration of consequences, especially unintentional ones. Antidotes are:
- Co-create realistic workplans – understanding that timelines may change.
- Discuss and plan for setting goals of inclusivity and diversity – particularly in terms of time.
- Write realistic funding proposals – be clear about how good decisions will be made in an atmosphere of urgency.
- Defensiveness – There are several ways defensiveness can be demonstrated. When people respond to new or challenging ideas with defensiveness, it prevents new ideas, diversity of thought and innovation to thrive. A culture of oppression is the result when people in power respond with defensiveness. Antidotes are:
- Understand the link between defensiveness and fear.
- Name defensiveness when it occurs.
- Discuss ways defensiveness or resistance to new ideas impedes the mission.
- Either/Or Thinking – If the culture supports either/or thinking then the only answer is “either/or, good/bad, right/wrong, with us/against us.” It diminishes the opportunity for the answer to be yes/and or both/and. Antidotes are:
- Encourage people to come up with two more alternatives when you hear either/or language.
- When faced with urgent decisions, take a break, and provide the space to think creatively.
- When the team is under extreme pressure, avoid making decisions.
- Power Hoarding – For those who are in power, the assumption is they have the best interests of the organization at heart and that power is limited. There is little importance placed on power sharing. Any challenge or those advocating for change are labeled as ill-informed, inexperienced, and ill-equipped. Antidotes are:
- Include power sharing in your values.
- Discuss what good leadership looks like – which includes developing the power and skills of others.
- Remind everyone that change is inevitable and challenges to your leadership can be healthy and productive. Ensure organization is focused on the mission.
The workbook states: “One of the purposes of listing characteristics of white supremacy culture is to point out how organizations which unconsciously use these characteristics as their norms and standards make it difficult, if not impossible, to open the door to other cultural norms and standards. As a result, many of our organizations, while saying we want to be multicultural, really only allow other people and cultures to come in if they adapt or conform to already existing cultural norms. Being able to identify and name the cultural norms and standards you want is a first step to making room for a truly multi-cultural organization.”