By Howard Ross
Here in the United States, we are seeing a dramatic rise in the overt expressions of white supremacy, rolling back any perceived progress made on equal rights in our country over the last several decades. Whether President Donald Trump’s openly racist and divisive remarks are the catalyst, or simply spurring on a climate of overt racism is open for debate. However, Trump’s unabashed name-calling — labeling those from the non-dominant population in America in offensive terms — has drawn a base of supporters that harbor racial resentment.
How did this swell of racial and cultural bias emerge, and can it be overcome?
A survey of data from Gallup polling reveals that among predictors of support for Trump’s 2016 candidacy was “living in racially isolated communities.” When we don’t know people who are of different races or cultures or have different social values or political affiliations, it’s far too easy to let biases color our perceptions.
Today, more than ever, we are segregating ourselves into homogenous communities of people with whom we identify — by race, religion, political affiliation, socio-economic group, and even preferred media sources. This increasing tendency to surround ourselves only with people like us accentuates our tribalism and mistrust of those we consider “the other.” It fuels an “us versus them” mindset.
For example, Black men are consistently shown as criminals in various forms of media versus any other group. Exposure to the sea of information and often misinformation that negatively stereotypes Black men leads to fear and distrust. We’ve seen the repercussions of such profiling in the multitudes of Black men — who often are innocent — killed at the hands of police.
Unconscious bias plays a strong role in our propensity to stereotype people. Unconscious bias accounts for our attitudes, opinions, and stigma we form about certain groups of people outside of our own conscious awareness. It results from social conditioning, belief systems we have been taught or exposed to, incidents we remember, or any number of other assumed “truths” we have picked up along the way.
For a long time, our general belief has been that stereotypes and biases were attributes of bigoted people. However, an explosion of studies about the unconscious over the past two decades is revealing that all people use biases and stereotypes, all of the time. And all of us do so without realizing we’re doing it. This trait makes it easy for us to demonize groups with whom we have had little exposure or experience, and to overlook the broader qualities we share as humans.
Our social judgments constructed by our unconscious mind about “those kinds of people” makes it easy for our president to bait his followers by generating hate towards others. But can we break out of our hostility toward people unlike ourselves and find more understanding and civility?
To do so, we must make the unconscious conscious. We need to:
1. Understand that bias is inherent in each of us. Bias is part of our fundamental survival mechanism. When we understand this, it allows us to bring compassion to others and to ourselves for our blind spots. It also means that we need to discard the good person/bad person paradigm and recognize the humanity in each of us. Remove any self-criticism about biases and take on the task of self-exploration. It can be a very illuminating experience.
2. Focus in on our gut reactions. When we pay attention, we can sense when we’re reacting from an earlier emotional place. Even if we can’t recall an incident or know what we are triggering, the very fact of sensing that we’re reacting to something from the past can help us “dis-identify” with the reaction and choose a different behavior. For example, if we bristle when asked to hurry up, the emotion may correlate with conflicts we had with parents as a child when we were running late.
3. Shift into neutral. What we can do to deal with bias is somewhat similar to what we do when we shift a car into neutral. When we shift into neutral, the engine doesn’t stop running, but for that moment at least, the engine isn’t driving the car. The same is true when we bring our awareness to our biases. The bias may still be there, but at that moment we have some ability to manage how much it controls our behavior.
4. Seek out different perspectives. One of the most effective ways to dis-identify with our biases is through exposure to people and groups we harbor biases against. The bottom line is, the more we get to know people for who they are, the less we associate them with a stereotype.
Who we are and who we want to be as a society will ultimately be defined by our ability to raise our consciousness level beyond our tendency to simply react from biases.
About the author: Howard Ross is a lifelong social justice advocate and the founding partner of Cook Ross. He’s considered one of the world’s seminal thought leaders on identifying and addressing unconscious bias. He authored the bestseller, Everyday Bias: Identifying and Navigating Unconscious Judgments in Our Daily Lives, and ReInventing Diversity: Transforming Organizational Community to Strengthen People, Purpose and Performance. His new book, Our Search for Belonging: How the Need for Connection Is Tearing Our Culture Apart (Berrett-Koehler, 2018) describes how to bridge the divide in our increasingly polarized society. Learn more at howardjross.com.