Last night I finished reading Tiffany Jana’s and Matthew Freeman’s book Overcoming Bias. Understanding bias — especially unconscious bias — has been a favorite topic of discussion with me for several years, so I was thrilled to receive a copy of this book at this year’s Richmond SHRM Diversity & Inclusion Symposium where Tiffany Jana was the opening keynote speaker.
Oh so many topics I could blog about (and still might) from this book. Chapter 3 is In-groups and out-groups. Your in-group can be defined in a number of ways. It’s your family and friends. It may be your closest co-workers, your neighbors, or your friends from college. More broadly defined, it can be people with whom you share political affiliation, religious beliefs, or even more broadly, race, gender… it’s people like you. Everyone else is your out-group. One of the statements the authors make is that “there is tremendous pressure in our society not to expand your in-group.” A clear, albeit sad, example of this was in the headlines recently when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell warned “that Republicans might have to reach across the aisle if they can’t craft a workable health care bill…” A bipartisan solution? Would that really be so bad?
I have had a number of opportunities to expand my in-group over the years. In high school I created a project for my psychology class that fits perfectly with the exercise Jana and Freeman suggest in their book. It’s called Get Out of the Zone. “Find a place where you will be in the minority, the more extreme the better. Try being the only _____________ (fill in the blank) person in a large group of other folks.” That’s exactly what I did when I attended bilingual classes for a day at an inner-city high school. I had taken several years of Spanish by this time and wanted to find out how comfortable I would be immersing myself into a Spanish-speaking environment. (The term bilingual applied loosely to the classes I attended as they were taught primarily in Spanish.) In terms of Jana’s and Freeman’s exercise, I was the only white, blonde, non-native Spanish-speaking person in the group. And it was everything the authors said it would be: intimidating, uncomfortable, and eye-opening.
The authors suggest to “rinse, repeat, and see how the experience of being out of your comfort zone evolves.” Since that experiment in high school, I have found — or more accurately — put myself into other places where I was a minority. I married into a Filipino family and was often the only non-Filipino in the room. When I taught financial literacy classes for Junior Achievement, I purposely picked an inner-city elementary school where as a middle-class white person I was a minority. I know each of those experiences have had a lasting impact on my thinking and, I hope, helped me acknowledge and check my biases. (For a little more about each of these experiences, see my earlier post What makes the world go ’round.)
However, I am still a work-in-progress. Later in the book, Jana and Freeman offer another exercise called Diversity Inventory. The premise is to take your top five friends and list all the ways they are similar to you and all the ways they are different from you. While I do have diversity in this close in-group, the list of similarities is longer than our differences. Does this mean I am still biased? Yup. And I always will be because bias is part of being human. At its core, bias is simply a preference for one thing over another. And as humans, we prefer to be with people who are like us because it’s comfortable and safe. I cannot stop being biased, but when I notice that I am being biased, I can stop, think about the situation, and decide if my bias is fair.