unconscious biasI, like every human on this planet, harbor unconscious bias. Social stereotypes about certain groups of people lurk in the recesses of my mind, and I don’t even know it! And, despite my best intentions, they sometimes spill over into my everyday activities.


Why does this happen? We are hard-wired to stereotype. Picture a pot of boiling water. Once we learn that sticking our hand in will scald us, we transfer that knowledge to all bubbling liquids we encounter. Can you imagine what life would be like if we had to decide whether a steaming cauldron was dangerous every time we encountered it? Stereotyping works well when it comes to boiling liquid but is problematic when dealing with others.

My wake-up call came when investigating employment discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Prior to that job, I had never dealt with Nigerians—my slate was blank. My first encounter with a Nigerian male sent me up the wall. The man was rude, demanding, demeaning, and obnoxious. Later, I complained to one of my friends. He said, “Nigerians. Nigerians? I love Nigerians. They are warm, wonderful people.”

Wow! I only knew one Nigerian and put his traits on everyone else! And my job was to go after those who did the same thing in private industry.

Fast forward. As a senior citizen, I attended the opening of my small town’s new AT&T store to purchase an Android phone. A man older than myself approached me. My brain began to protest. You are too old to know anything about cell phones, go away. But this time, I was able to reign in my bias, reminding myself that just because he was old did not mean he was technologically incompetent.

Consider this: by age five we have definite, entrenched stereotypes that we have absorbed from our culture as if by magic. At age two, my grandson, who was transitioning from diapers, had an accident at church. With no clean underwear available, the nursery staff put him in the only diaper they had, a pink one. He went ballistic. Pink was for girls. At this point, he did not have the ability or experience to form his own beliefs.


The path forward lies in our ability to recognize that we cannot help having biases and prejudices, but we can do something about them. First, acknowledge their existence and take responsibility. Then identify problem behaviors, study how they impact others, and modify our conduct. This is a constant battle, but well worth the effort.


When others say or do something that you find offensive, assume goodwill, that their unconscious bias is at work. Speak with the individual privately, using “I” phrases. Be honest about your feelings.

When we have open dialog, we develop mutual respect and understanding. Holding grudges and making assumptions about what the other individual thinks leads to misunderstandings and distrust.


If someone confronts you, saying you are offensive, take a deep breath and listen. Explain your position using “I” phrases. If you did not intend to be offensive, apologize. Even if you feel what you said should not be offensive to the other individual, refrain from using the words again out of respect for them.

 At one point, I was working on my Spanish, and would greet my Hispanic co-worker by saying, “Hola, Senior Cruz.” One day he blew up, and, in an aggressive voice, said, “Don’t say that again.”

 At first, I was insulted. I was trying to learn his language. However, if it offended him, so be it. Out of respect, I never uttered that phrase again.


The key to America realizing its ideal of forming a more perfect union is for each of us to recognize—and own—our unconscious bias and control it.


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