Unconscious Bias

Unconscious Bias 

I’m quicker to associate men with chemistry and women with literature. It sucks, but it’s true. I have unconscious bias that favors men in fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and women in the humanities.

How do I officially know this? I took the implicit bias tests created by Harvard scientists. Do I believe the results, my “slight bias,” to be true? – Yes – While my unconscious gender bias illuminated on a computer screen didn’t make me feel very good, it also wasn’t very surprising. We are all products of our environments, and my environment, like yours, is a patriarchy. A decade of studying gender issues and a graduate degree can’t erase the fact that I was born into a world that has been playing the same broken record for centuries, men are better than women.

In my time researching and discussing unconscious bias, I’ve come across great information that has helped me become more aware of my own unconscious biases and I’ve acquired some tips and tools that I’d like to share. Because Raising Zoomer is a resource primarily devoted to adults who have the great fortune of being around children – my objectives for this article are to help you:

…understand what unconscious bias is,

…identify the unconscious biases you have & trace them back to their roots,

…understand how unconscious bias influences your life, and as a result, your kid’s life,

and last but certainly not least,

…strategize how to consciously address your unconscious biases.

We do our best as parents, teachers, family and friends to raise our kids to be kind, accepting and non-judgmental – but our own unconscious biases have the power to undermine the values we hope our children pick up. The first step in tackling unconscious bias is getting up close and personal with it.

What is unconscious bias?

Some folks at the University of California San Francisco do a wonderful job defining unconscious biases:

Unconscious Biases are social stereotypes about specific groups of people that individuals form outside of their conscious awareness. 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 exist toward any social group. One’s race, ethnicity, age, sex, gender identity, physical abilities, religion, sexual orientation, weight, and many other characteristics are subject to bias. Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and is often incompatible with one’s conscious values.

Do I have unconscious biases and where’d they come from?

Yup, you have unconscious biases and so does everyone else on the planet. Adult humans make approximately 35,000 remotely conscious decisions each day, children make about 3,000. Our brains have the natural tendency to quickly categorize things: Familiar or Unfamiliar? Safe or Unsafe? Edible or Poisonous? Fight or Flight? This often happens on an unconscious level, because we couldn’t possibly function if we had to make conscious decisions about every single one of our thoughts and behaviors throughout the day.

So, for better or for worse, your brain has taken all of your past experiences and everything you have observed from your parents, community, and the media and packaged it up into snap-judgement folders in your brain for quick access, also known as stereotypes.

The biases we hold against others are largely influenced by what we are and are not exposed to during our lives. The human species has evolved and survived in some part because of unconscious bias and instincts. If we see someone who is different from ourselves, an unconscious train of thought may go something like this: different = unfamiliar = bad. Our conscious mind may think: different = diversity = great. Which is exactly why we need to be aware and conscious of our unconscious biases so that we can ensure we are not perpetuating harmful stereotypes that are incompatible with how we want to live and interact with others and the example we want to set for our children.

How does unconscious bias impact me and my family?

We inherit more than our eye color and ability to roll our tongue from our parents. We inherit their world view. If kids are sponges, then parents are the sea. Kids make sense of their world by absorbing the way their parents (and other adults in their life) talk and behave. We all grew up with commentary about people’s weight, skin color, religious beliefs, class, and age – and ideas about what is acceptable for some and unacceptable for others. Of course, as we grow up and branch out from our families, we create our own world views, but the remnants of our pasts remain in our minds and whether we like it or not, influence our actions.

We as parents, family, friends and educators write the script for the world our children grow up in, and this can be a tough pill to swallow, but sometimes our unconscious biases undermine our good, conscious intentions. Acknowledgment of our own biases will lead to more awareness of the potential harm our unconscious bias can inflict. This awareness is a great thing – we can maximize our conscious actions to minimize unconscious ones.

Can I get rid of unconscious bias?

We will always have unconscious biases, immediate judgments that favor this more than that. That said, we can certainly attempt to rewire the way our brains unconsciously think about different social groups of people. And we can absolutely help children build the mental structures that will influence their unconscious biases. Education and exposure are paramount in tackling unconscious bias. It is clear there are some population level biases in the United States that must be addressed. I invite you to ask yourself "How do I want my child to feel about the following social groups:"

Immigrants; Mexicans; Muslims; Christians; Atheists; Democrats; Republicans; wealthy people; poor people; people experiencing incarceration; people experiencing homelessness; female politicians; stay-at-home dads; Black people; white folks; indigenous persons; differently abled people, gender diverse people; same-sex couples. This list is by no means extensive, just something to get your brain working.

If any of the social groups mentioned caused you to feel uncomfortable, here are some things to consider:

-  As an adult, how has this idea or social group been discussed in your own social circles? Positively or negatively? Why is that?

- When you were a child/adolescent what was your understanding of this idea/group? What was your exposure to this idea/group? Positive or negative? Why is that?

- Do you want your child to grow up with a different experience than you did?

Once you’ve identified your biases and their roots, you can:
1) Educate yourself and those around you.
- Read more about the idea or group in books and autobiographies, credible news sources, academic articles (found through Google scholar), and websites and resources created for and by the group.
2) Expose yourself to the idea or group.
- Seek opportunities and experiences to learn more about this idea or group through hearing their stories at community events.

Consciously tackling unconscious bias.

Our conscious actions, just like our unconscious ones, have the power to shape our children’s worldview. What an incredible opportunity we have to not only improve our own lives, but also our children’s lives and those we interact with!

Here’s a list of ideas to start challenging traditional gender socialization and help your child be unconsciously (and consciously) gender creative.

-  Use gender neutral pronouns (they/them/their) when talking about people, animals, TV and book characters, until said person tells you their pronouns, then of course use those. This normalizes gender neutral pronouns and may make you more consciously aware to not make gendered assumptions. See Words and Pronouns article for a more in-depth read.

-  Do not call things “boy” things or “girl” things. Toys are toys and clothes are clothes. Walk through all the toy and clothes aisles and validate kids’ interests. Intentionally support companies that promote this philosophy.

-  Make a point to compliment gender creative people.

-  Make a point to be kind to people who are different than you.

-  Make a point to be kind and compliment yourself – especially in front of your kid. Refrain from putting yourself down. They notice.

-  Do not shy away from discussions with your kids about differences, embrace them. Make decisions in advance about how you will talk to your kids about people who they may or may not see on a daily basis, for example, people who use wheelchairs or wear a headscarf. Normalize diversity.

- Choose to compliment a girl or woman’s intelligence, humor and accomplishments before her appearance.

- Choose to compliment a boy or man’s compassion, sensitivity and generosity before his toughness.

- Admit mistakes you make that are related to your unconscious bias and brainstorm how you can do better – then do better.

-  Never stop learning. Never stop reading about people who are different than you, never stop watching documentaries and listening to people’s stories. And never stop talking about what you’ve learned and what you’d like to learn next.

-  Go to new places. New shops, new churches, new cafés, new states and countries, new community events. Put yourself in unfamiliar places often and connect with new people.

-  Stand up for what you know is right. Talk back. Do not let others’ unconscious (or conscious) bias go unchecked. This can of course be done respectfully, but it must be done. Our kids are watching.

Unconscious bias is something we’ll be dealing with until the day we die. Some days will be tougher than others, but we owe it to ourselves and our kids to commit to acknowledging our unconscious bias and becoming more socially aware. What better time to start than now?