What are your unconscious biases and how can you overcome them?
Having a preference is not a bad thing, but it may stop you from exploring equally great possibilities, and even people, if you aren’t aware of them. In an effort to become better and expand our horizons it’s important to acknowledge and confront these inclinations so we can create stronger relationships. So how can you find and confront your own biases and allow yourself the freedom to encounter new experiences?
Tiffany Jana is the co-founder and CEO of TMI Consulting, a diversity and inclusion firm based out of Richmond, Virginia. She's been named Diversity Journal's Women Worth Watching List, Metropolitan Business League's Entrepreneur of the Year, B Corp's Best for the World and Enterprising Women's Enterprising Woman of the Year 2017. She's the author of Overcoming Bias: Building Authentic Relationships Across Differences. I recently interviewed Tiffany for the LEADx Podcast, where we talked about the truth of bias, where it comes from, and how we can change it. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)
Kevin Kruse: You say everyone is biased in some way. So what is bias and why is it so important?
Tiffany Jana: So bias itself is just the preference of one thing over another. I hope that it's not getting a bad rep like diversity did once upon a time because it does scare people, but it really is just a function of the human condition. If we were not able to make shortcuts and quickly make decisions and form opinions about things, it would take us too long to deliberate. We really wouldn't survive as a species. You need to be able to look at an orange and know from your previous experience that it's not going to kill you. So bias is just preferring one thing over another.
Now, it's not a problem when we're talking about your favorite food, your favorite color, your favorite flavor but it does get challenging when we start having preferences about people particularly in the spaces where we're talking about things that they can't control, and when we get into protected categories like gender, race, religion, age, having a preference for or against anything in that area is definitely sketchy territory and in the workplace, that's protected. So you can't simply choose to promote somebody because they happen to share a religion with you if that's the reason that you promote them over someone else, that's illegal. So that's the dangerous ground.
Now, having the bias, as I said, is not a problem in itself. It really isn’t your fault either. That's the other important message in this book. It's not your fault that you have bias. Our culture really kind of acclimates us to preferences in one direction to the other. Everything that we read, everything that we see, media consumption, influences from family, friends, institutions, all of these things are biased by nature and really in many cases, people are getting information from good people who care about them and that information is not always useful and it's not always timely.
Some biased opinions and approaches to life are based on days gone by and are no longer relevant. So it's not anyone's fault that they have bias. But we do have them, and I believe at this point in our society, we have an obligation to try to mine ourselves for those biases, see what they are and do something about it.
Kruse: Your book has 10 different activities that are designed to uncover our biases. Can you share a few with us?
Jana: We've got a couple of inventories. We've got the ‘diversity inventory’ and the ‘culture inventory.’ The diversity inventory is one of my favorites because it really hits close to home. It's very personal. With that, what we like to ask people to think about is identify the top five people in your circle of trust.
So if you were to win the lottery or lose your job, something fabulous or something awful happens, who are the first five people you would contact? It can be family, friends, anybody but think about those folks and then we ask you to think about the demographics that they represent. What are their genders, what are their races, what are their social orientations if you know them, what are their religious preferences if they have them?
Then think about how similar or how different those people are from you? It's an exercise, the kind of exercise that most of us don't take the time to do. Our circle of trust is our circle of trust. Our friends are who our friends are. In many cases, that circle of trust includes mostly family. Whether you're choosing family or friends, what people often find is that there are a lot of similarities between those people. Some of those are demographic similarities. Some of them are approaches to life, worldview. Some of them are things like race and things like that. For instance, if they are people in your family, they tend to be a lot like us in many ways physically.
Then one thing that we find is that people often say that the people who are in their circle of trust are people who they've had experiences over time with. So they're people who if they tell them something dramatic, it's not going to break the relationship because the relationship has been tested over time.
Kruse: I'm going to have to come back to this but if it's only five, I'm suddenly looking very white, old and male which doesn't make me feel very good.
Jana: You don't have to feel bad if that happens. ‘Like’ attracts ‘like.’ We are comforted by that which is familiar. I mean, when you think about something as simple as our standards of beauty. Beauty, people say is the sum total of the average of all the faces we've ever seen. Well, if you're surrounded by people who look like you, you're going to find people who look like you attractive.
Again, this is just the way the brain is hardwired. Don't guilt yourself. But if it's something, if you feel that diversity would add value and—no pun intended—color, to your life, then when you have the opportunity to build experiences over time with people, maybe you want to broaden your horizons a little bit.
Kruse: I took the ‘implicit association test’ that you link in your book and it told me I fall into the 17% of people that don’t have a preference.
Jana: That's really fascinating. Like a 17% – it's pretty rare to find somebody on that one that has little to no preference in either direction. I'm very curious about them only having one up that day because typically there are many, many, many that you can choose from so you should definitely log in again because they typically have a dozen or so up and they rotate them all the time. So you can get skin color. You can get religion, weight, sexual orientation, all kinds of things, it's pretty fascinating.
Kruse: I have to think that what we're exposed to has a lot to do with what goes into this, right?
Jana: Absolutely. That phenomenon that you're experiencing is the case all over the United States. It's a little disconcerting when people kind of pigeonhole Southerners as having race issues or racism being a Southern issue. The very layout of our American cities is the result of systematic racism. Once upon a time, the city centers were populated with people of all demographics. A lot of white people lived downtown too and lived in the city. Then when desegregation happens in the post Civil Rights movement, white flight was a thing and most people are somewhat familiar with that, right?
As black people began to get more access, white people decided to move further and further into the sort of outskirts of the city, hence creating the suburbs. But when we think about our exposure to people, when we look at the diversity inventory, that's what we're looking at. When you look at your access to people, we are actually more segregated now than we were in the height of segregation. Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. We tend to worship with people who look like us. Our schools are incredibly segregated.
Our neighborhoods and communities are still incredibly segregated. So we're not getting the kinds of opportunities that we need to really build those relationships across differences. When I was working on my dissertation, I actually came across this theory called contact theory, Gordon Allport back in 1954. 1954 in the States, we weren't really trying to get over our bias. Not a wonder that people don't know about the study.
He was able to show that interpersonal prejudice comes from a lack of exposure and a lack of understanding about different people, and that prejudice and bias could be reduced through the exposure to different people over time with some specific conditions in place. And he kind of listed those four conditions out but our biases are surmountable. They do come from either lived experience or information that's been caught on our hard drive over time and it's time for us to really take that inventory and figure out what's on the hard drive and clean that bad boy out.
Kruse: You write that ‘privilege’ simply means an advantage available to one group that isn't available to everyone. Tell me more about that.
Jana: Yeah, so this was actually the topic at my TED talk, the power of privilege. Privilege is for some folks, when that conversation happens, people do get really nervous and no one should be made to feel bad about privilege. This is kind of the cornerstone that my consultancy is built off of, no blame and shame, aspirational. We should be focusing on how diversity helps us in the research that you referenced. So privilege, I like to take it out of the realm of, “It's a white male, Anglo-Saxon thing, right?” Not at all. For instance, I just defended my dissertation. I am now Dr. Tiffany Jana.
Kruse: Congratulations on that.
Jana: Thank you. Such a long time coming. Goodness gracious. I'm so glad to be done. But what that affords me is a level of privilege in society that many people don't have and won't ever have. I am an African American woman with an invisible disability. That puts me in a sort of multiple, marginalized categories and people wouldn't look at me and say, “Oh, how privileged.” But in fact, by virtue of my education, by virtue of my upbringing, I was raised by a Ph.D and an MD. So I was raised with a great deal of privilege, so it is really relative what privilege is, but it just has to do with having access and in some cases having exposure that everyone doesn't have. We all have some degree of privilege some way.
I'm a big fan of the ever improving human and I do believe that, again, nobody here on planet earth created racism. Nobody here is responsible for having created this mess that we're in, sexism and all of the isms, homophobia, whatever. It just simply is a fact of life. But if we are able to recognize that yes we do have unconscious bias and that is not a bad thing but what can I do about it. If we're able to recognize, yes, I do have some privilege, it's not bad but how can I use my privilege for good, how can I use that advantage to help someone else? Those are the things that I think are our responsibilities. In fact, it's also a privilege to be able to use those elements and advantages that we have to help humanity or help our neighbor or just sort of advance whatever causes that we can.
Kruse: I like to get our listeners to take some action every single day to get 1% better. What can we do today to overcome our bias and build authentic relationships?
Jana: So I actually would go back to an exercise in the book that is a very accessible, very easy way for people to broaden those horizons and sort of deal with the biases that they might have and that would be the cultural inventory, to reach out beyond the resources that you typically reach out for. So in the cultural inventory, we ask people to list the last three books they read, the last three movies they saw, TV shows, music, etc. Again, you'll find that you gravitate toward similar things over time.
What I would ask you to do if you want to be 1% better is pick up a book by an author from a demographic that is vastly different from anything you normally read. Listen to some music that represents folks far, far away from you. Watch a show with lead characters that don't look anything like you. I feel like that's very easy because that's something that you can do in the privacy of your own home, nobody there to judge you or have any kind of opinion, but it will give you a window into someone else's world, into a whole group of people's world, a window that will increase your understanding of them, and by extension increase your compassion and make them part of your in group.
Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of LEADx.org, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.