June 5, 2020

Digital Leadership Development

Rooting Out Bias in All Its Forms

Note: I am breaking from my usual format for this special issue of Your Digital Future.

I was sitting, back straight on the couch, beads of sweat forming on my brow.

I was sixteen and had come to my girlfriend’s house to pick her up for a date.

Of course, she wasn’t ready. 

So her mom deposited me on the couch and retreated to the kitchen to leave me to wait. Sitting to my right, watching TV, was her father.

I was nervous for any number of reasons — I hadn’t met her parents before, I was a new driver, and so on — but I was not prepared for what would happen next.

Without ever looking at me, he said, “Just so you know, son, you can date her, but you’ll never marry her.”

I was taken aback.

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I honestly have no idea what I said, if anything. I’m not sure I even told my girlfriend. Growing up in the multi-cultural suburbs fifty miles east of Los Angeles, I was well-insulated from the racism and bias that my parents had suffered growing up in East LA.

I am fortunate in that this was one of the rare instances of racism or bias that I have experienced in my life. 

While I have always acknowledged racism’s reality, I have tended to see it as coterminous with socioeconomic disadvantage. In that, I mean that I believed that because I carried myself well, spoke articulately, and didn’t otherwise appear to be “different” — all signs of being socioeconomically equal to my peers — that I was able to avoid becoming a victim of racism or bias.

More to the point, I, therefore, believed that most non-overt accounts of racism and bias were really misplaced discomfort of socioeconomic differences.

The Bias Awareness Gap

It’s incredible how we can always find ways to make fun of people or ridicule them. In fairness, it is harmless and in good fun, much of the time. But not always.

One of my “favorites” was when people would call me a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside. While I am Mexican, I guess it’s fair to say that I have spent most of my life “identifying as white.” I don’t speak Spanish and haven’t carried over many Mexican traditions (except for tamales at Christmas!)

That’s not to say that I was ashamed of my family or heritage. On the contrary, I was and am proud of both where my family came from and what they have accomplished. I owe a great debt of gratitude to the generations that came before me and transformed a poor, working-class family into one in which we are quite literally living the so-called American Dream.

Still, like many of my white friends and associates, I grew up and existed largely free of any overt racism or bias.

And this upbringing allowed me to believe what I believed.

Recent events, however, have made me face the naiveté of those beliefs.

While the protests around the death of George Floyd have received much of the attention, it is the personal testimonies of some of my black friends that have had the greatest impact on me.

One, in particular, stands out.

Like me, my friend grew up raised by a career cop. Like me, he grew up aware of race, but also with a respect and appreciation for the incredibly difficult job that police officers undertake every day.

And like me, he is a well-educated, articulate professional. He holds a senior executive position at a large software company, holds advanced degrees, makes a very healthy living, and comports himself with the utmost of poise and dignity.

But he’s black.

In a Facebook post, he bravely shared how he must go out of his way to be friendly and ensure that he comes off as non-threatening. He explained that when he goes on vacation to exclusive locales, he takes care never to go anywhere alone to avoid being harassed for proof that he belongs there.

Most shockingly to me, he shared how even at his own company, where he is one of the most visible executives, he was once refused access to an area despite wearing company-branded clothing and showing a blog post he had written.

His story hit close to home for me as it laid bare how different our experience with racism has been, even though our experiences otherwise were so similar. As I processed his story and those I heard from other black friends, I realized just how much I have failed to recognize when it comes to bias.

Rooting Out Bias

I need to be very careful here. I don’t want to minimize George Floyd’s death, racial bias, or the gut-wrenching lack of awareness to it, of which many of us are guilty.

But as I’ve been processing all that has been going on around us, I realized that my blindness was likely not limited to the very different reality that black men and women experience.

I am now confident that it extends to any number of biases across a vast spectrum of race, gender, sexuality, nationality, and on and on. 

I like to think of myself as self-aware, but these events have made me realize that confronting subconscious or below-the-surface bias of any form, including seeing it within ourselves and our organizations, takes willful and active effort — we have to put forth the energy to identify and address it.

And most of us don’t.

But we need to.

As I continued to process what has been happening, I realized that at least part of the answer is something that I’ve been talking about for some time: empathy.

At its core, being empathetic means to put ourselves into someone else’s shoes and attempt to feel what they feel. If we don’t share their experiences, this will be an imperfect exercise. Still, when we put forth the effort to genuinely understand what someone else is experiencing and feeling, we slowly find a way empathy.

And empathy opens the door to us seeing and, ultimately, rooting out our biases and the biases that permeate our organizations and institutions in all its forms.

The first step in doing this is to share our stories. Doing so provides a window into our experiences so others have an opportunity to engage with them and create the pathway to empathy, much as my friend did for me. 

So, what are your experiences with bias in any form? What’s your story?

Image credit: Sharon McCutcheon


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