Unconscious bias, sometimes called implicit bias, is a term that has been in use for more than twenty years. The concept is simple. Everybody holds prejudiced views in their minds based on their social background. Everything you say and do is affected by this bias. Most people are unaware that their speech or behavior is influenced by prejudice because this bias lives in the subconscious part of your brain and is not part of a conscious thought process. Despite its hidden nature, there are some practical ways to start recognizing and challenging these biases.
Expand Your World View
Engage with content you wouldn’t normally view or read. Unconscious bias stems from the world you inhabit, and most people seek out TV shows, movies, books and online articles that reflect this world rather than challenge it. Try engaging with content created by somebody from a different social background than you, e.g. someone from a different culture, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Many content sites such as Netflix are actively making and broadcasting more shows and movies that show positive representation of BAME cultures, LGBT people and women. By expanding your worldview, you will come across new ideas and ways of thinking that may not sit comfortably with your current mindset.
Embrace Cognitive Discomfort
Recognize the moment of resistance. Human brains seek out patterns and familiarity, which means when you hear or read something that challenges your existing unconscious bias, you are likely to experience some cognitive discomfort. This is typically accompanied by denial and frustration. When you start to recognize this feeling, you can choose to sit with it and challenge your current way of thinking. The temptation is to ignore any new, conflicting information in favor of old thinking patterns, but personal growth and wisdom come from acknowledging new ideas despite the cognitive discomfort you might face.
Mindfully Consider New Viewpoints
Once you have overcome feelings of discomfort, you can mindfully engage with new ideas. If you disagree with something, try researching alternative viewpoints to see how people from various social backgrounds think and respond. When engaging in discourse, whether in person, in books or online, try to read a variety of viewpoints. One person cannot represent a whole social group, and by only engaging with one viewpoint you are unlikely to get a good overall impression of the subject. Researching around an idea means that you are likely to gain an understanding of a particular prejudice, meaning you are better able to educate those around you.
Take a Step Back
Social situations are the most difficult place to engage with this new way of thinking, because human instinct tells you to defend yourself rather than listen without judgment. If somebody challenges your opinion, try taking a step back before instantly jumping to your own defense. You may not agree with the challenger, but by pausing, sitting with the feeling of resistance and checking out a few different alternative viewpoints, you are expanding your thinking. Even if you end up disagreeing with a friend or colleague, this new thought process will help you to empathize and understand the world from another person’s perspective.
Challenge Views, Not People
When you start to recognize and get rid of internal prejudices, you are likely to start noticing them from people you know. You can choose to challenge people who still hold an unconscious bias. When challenging others, try to focus on the idea rather than the person who expressed it, as this can help people to overcome the feeling of resistance that leads to denial and lack of growth. Instead of calling somebody a racist or a sexist, try acknowledging the prejudiced idea, expressing an alternative opinion and suggesting the speaker think about why they expressed the original statement. If the person is willing to engage in dialogue, you could try discussing the concept of unconscious bias to equip them to recognize prejudices by themselves.
Recognize Your Privilege
Unconscious bias is linked to privilege, which is a concept that explores how different social groups benefit or suffer from certain biases. Most unconscious bias supports social oppression, e.g. certain groups having fewer rights than others. It is important to remember that if you are in a privileged social group, you are more likely to have more internal bias because you won’t have naturally unlearned it throughout your life. Try to keep this in mind, especially if you are feeling challenged by a person from a minority group or any social group that typically experiences oppression.
Recognizing and dismantling unconscious bias allows you to see the world in a realistic way, rather than through the lens of your own social background. This will have a positive impact on yourself and those around you and will ultimately improve your communication skills. Unconscious bias interferes with your ability to be objective and empathetic. People who actively work to unlearn bias tend to be good listeners, fair bosses and more engaged in social progress. Dismantling unconscious bias also helps you to recognize any internalized beliefs that hold you back in life.