I love Trevor Noah. He’s seriously funny. But he’s also serious, especially when it comes to confronting some of the most important conversations of the day — one of those being unconscious bias.
Noah, a South African born comedian and television host of The Daily Show, recently spoke out on a very unfortunate situation in Dallas, Texas. A white, female police officer shot and killed an African American man in his own apartment because she mistakenly assumed his apartment as her own. The officer was found guilty and only received a 10-year prison sentence. The black community was outraged, feeling strongly that if the narrative were reversed (black person shoots white person), the consequences would have been different. Noah brought to light how bias, both conscious and unconscious, played a role in this situation and reminded us that while we all have biases, the consequences aren’t always the same for different cultural groups.
Robin DiAngelo, in her book White Fragility, explains it this way: “Inequity can occur simply through homogeneity; if I’m not aware of the barriers you face, then I won’t see them, much less be motivated to remove them.”
If we are going to move this work forward, we must be willing to first have the uncomfortable conversations not just about the bias but its impact. We then can move people towards authentic and culturally intelligent strategies for managing their biases.
Over the years, I’ve facilitated numerous unconscious bias trainings with a wide range of audiences, either through our unconscious bias workshops or our Train-the-Trainer program. Most often, I receive very positive feedback, but I have to admit, I sometimes wonder – Are people so positive because they truly experienced deep learning and a genuine commitment to managing their biases? Or, are they positive because the conversation was so comfortable that they leave thinking Hey, everyone has biases, it’s not that big of a deal!
The danger with the latter is that our efforts to protect the comfort of others can backfire. I’m not suggesting we shame or force people on a guilt trip. That’s never been our approach. But I am arguing that we must be willing to dig deep into the issue. Growth and learning require some discomfort and stepping out of our comfort zone. That means being willing to tell and hear the truth regarding our biases and their impact on others. For instance, I might exhibit a biased action towards you. You may feel bad, but if you are part of the dominant culture, it’s not going to have significant consequences like hold you back from getting job opportunities.
So when facilitating these discussions, how do we create space that helps individuals become comfortable with being uncomfortable with these conversations? How do we move them towards action and real behavior change?
Here are some culturally intelligent (CQ) tips to keep moving us in the right direction.
Start with CQ. While unconscious bias training is gaining a lot of attention at the moment, it, by itself, is not enough. There is a need for a research-based approach. Otherwise, training can perpetuate discrimination. In addition, you can spend an entire day, or week for that matter, facilitating training with all kinds of cool activities and exercises to help people uncover their biases. But then what? Although they may be more aware, what do they do about it? They need to combine that awareness with cultural intelligence. When we help individuals improve their CQ, it enables them to consciously identify their biases and determine effective strategies for managing them. As we build our CQ, we learn to move from reacting unconsciously to taking more conscious, intentional actions.
Create a psychologically, safe space. I know this may sound like Training 101, but it really is necessary and foundational to facilitating substantive conversations around unconscious bias. If people don’t feel they can share their own narratives, truths, and experiences without backlash or judgment, they will shut down, and you’ll never have full disclosure and honest dialogue. It will be surface at best, and people, in general, are likely to walk away, feeling discouraged and frustrated.
How do you create a psychologically, safe space? You establish (as a collaborative group and upfront) a clear set of rules of engagement grounds like listening to learn, being fully present, no judgment zone, assuming positive intent, confidentiality, a willingness to be part of the solution, etc. You then hold others and yourself accountable for honoring the rules. That alone with build trust between you and others. You’ll be amazed at how rich the conversation can be and how many teachable and learning moments can occur.
Acknowledge fears. Many people avoid these conversations because of fear. They may feel afraid of saying the “wrong” thing, appearing biased, or having to talk about a topic that makes them uncomfortable. Acknowledge the fears. Affirm that it’s normal to have these feelings. Then make it a goal to create an atmosphere of learning and trust, so these fears do not undermine their ability to participate and learn. This ties to the earlier idea of creating a safe space. At the same time, remind others that even when the fear goes away, they still may be uncomfortable. That’s ok. That’s good.
Name It. Often we discuss unconscious bias in broad and generic terms that we end up dancing around the real and sometimes toxic issues within our environments. Sometimes we need to name and confront those problems directly. What is the “it” for your organisation? What are your unique challenges or pain points? Is it gender bias? Is it ageism? Are people who are differently-abled being biased against? What about those from a certain religious background or political affiliation? I’m currently working with a large school district that wants to train teachers and staff on how to manage their unconscious biases. Although bias can show up in multiple ways, this school community had very specific concerns (and hard data to support them) around achievement gaps between white students and students of color and the potential role of racial bias. They named it and wanted the focus of the training programs to be racial equity and unconscious bias. Sometimes you have to shoot straight and call out those biases that are the most prevalent and have the most significant impact in your organisation.
Deal with the System. I was recently in New Zealand for some business meetings with one of our large educational partners. It was my first time in this beautiful country, and I learned quite a bit about the Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. Not unlike so many other parts of the world, colonization happened, and the Maori people were placed at a significant disadvantage economically, culturally, socially, and politically. Today, the government has not only acknowledged past wrongs; it has provided reparations and is working to dismantle the years of biased systems and practices that have negatively impacted this cultural group. The change won’t happen overnight, but they are at least moving in the right direction.
Systemic bias in our societies and organisations is very real. Just like individuals have unconscious bias, organisations may also have biased processes, practices, and policies. Those processes and systems structure our work, the ways we relate, and the opportunities or disadvantages we experience. They can reflect explicit and unconscious bias. Systemic change is needed to create inclusive organisations.
One of the most important ways to prevent bias from discrimination and ineffectiveness is by developing system-wide practices, policies, and operating guidelines. Review recruitment and hiring practices, audit other materials and resources like the employee manual to promotion policies and decisions. And keep asking the simple question – are our systems, policies, and practices serving as benefit or barrier to our ability to manage bias at the organisational level?
It’s okay to be uncomfortable. We just can’t allow it to paralyze us and we disengage. Instead, let’s embrace the discomfort and use it to enhance our cross-cultural effectiveness and commitment to equitable experiences and opportunities for all cultural groups.