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Their Unconscious Bias is Leaking Out and They Don't Get It. What Now? (#46)

Apr 22, 2021

Guest blog by Jessica Kanzler

Preface:  Over the last few months, several Whites and heterosexuals have asked me: how are they supposed to learn if they are criticized when they unknowingly say something offensive to a person from a nondominant group? I empathize. Being treated harshly when you make an inadvertent mistake is rough. The Leading Consciously skill sets are designed to help people navigate this difficult terrain to produce a positive outcome for all.

Yet when we received Jessica’s post, I knew we would publish it. She speaks for untold numbers of people in nondominant groups who are tired of perpetually feeling taken for granted. This viewpoint should be understood by all of us who seek to help create a brighter future.  — JKL



In an earlier post, I discussed my involuntary status as the speaker for all LGBT people at one of my last teaching jobs. I was routinely the go-to if one of my coworkers had an LGBT student in need of resources, feedback, or someone to talk to. Based on my not saying anything against their ideas, I guess they interpreted some sort of willingness to take on this work. I generally did this job without complaint, even though “unwilling representative of all LGBT folk” was not in my job description.  

To understand my role, and the role of so many other minority people, it’s important to again solidify a definition of unconscious bias and why I think this was an example. Unconscious bias consists of thoughts and feelings we hold about various social and identity groups without being consciously aware of it (also covered in blog #41).

I rarely called attention to my weird position as the living, breathing substitute for a cursory Google search. One of the only times I did, it did not go well. A teacher asked me to meet one of their students during my office hours to talk about campus LGBT resources. I asked why they didn’t just direct their student to the office of equity, which had done a presentation about that exact thing a few weeks before.

I didn’t mean for the question to come out harshly, but it did. I asked why they were talking to me instead of figuring it out themselves. It was their student, after all. What followed was an incredibly unproductive conversation, partially made more unproductive because I was tired from acting in this unasked-for role for several years now without complaint.

Here’s how the story unfolded. They told me they had given the student my email to “talk to someone who gets it.” The thing I was apparently supposed to “get” was specifically what it was like to be a gay man in a small town in a conservative state. The only things I had in common with this student were geography and adjacent pride flags. I referred the student to the same campus resources my coworker knew about. I asked my coworker, pointedly, why they came to me. They repeated that it was, again, because I’d “get it.” I asked, “why should I get it?” and “what about me says that this should be my job?”

I was angry. My coworker said something like “You’re an LGBT person so it made sense to connect you two.” I asked why they “thought it was my responsibility to be [their] student’s teacher when they already had one.”

They repeated earlier points, that “[you] would just be a really useful resource to have around.” Something about being called a “resource” in that context rubbed me the wrong way. Maybe it was the fact that I felt like my connection to my community was being capitalized on so someone else wouldn’t have to do the emotional work they did for their straight students.

I said, “There are better resources than me, and I don’t know why you’re trying to give your student away instead of sending them to the place literally designed for this.” They said something like, “I didn’t think talking to one student would be such a problem. It just seemed like something you should do.”

But it wasn’t just one student. It was one student at a time. The conversation was unproductive and short. It didn’t turn into yelling, and I didn’t throw down any accusations of homophobia. That’s not how these things worked. They repeated that I should be the one to do this work and then left and never spoke to me again.

Being clueless

If my own interactions with the world are anything to go by, then I’m pretty sure everyone exists in a near-constant state of cluelessness. It’s not about the same things, and it doesn’t extend to everything, but at any given moment, there’s so much that I don’t know. Harming someone by accident is still harm, but figuring out how to prevent accidental harm is so much more difficult than fixing something done deliberately. For example: I have two neighbors, one above and one beside. The one above me is either a dancer or an amateur bowler who has to practice every hour he has free. I don’t think he knows living beneath him is a bit like living inside a well-loved, often used drum set.

In contrast, every single night at 2:45 am my other neighbor walks outside, has a cigarette about 18 inches from my window, and loudly spits before going back inside. I asked him to stop, but it seemed like he stood closer to my window the next day. I could smell him through the crack where my window can’t seal.

One neighbor is clueless, the other isn’t. They’re both causing harm, in their own minor ways. The difference is awareness. My neighbor above is still annoying, and I still lose sleep because of it, but he seems completely unaware that I can hear him lobbing anvils across his living room, clad in full plate armor, and doing jumping jacks through the night. To resolve the problem, he would have to be told something is wrong or figure it out for himself, and when you don’t know anything is wrong, it’s kind of hard to figure it out without intervention.

My smoker neighbor would be easy. He knows what he’s doing, so there is one less step to fixing the problem because I don’t have to prove it’s there.

Moving forward

I do not believe my coworker was homophobic, far from it. They were generally a pleasant person, emphatically supportive of their LGBT students, but they harbored an unconscious bias that their gay students could best be helped by a teacher in the same community.

Granted, it wasn’t wrong that they were going to someone they considered an expert, and it’s good to have a community of diverse coworkers you can do that with. However, if getting feedback from coworkers is considered research, then what mine did is essentially asking me to write a paper for them.

I am and have been perfectly willing to be part of someone’s ongoing education on LGBT people just like other people have patiently been part of mine, but there is an essential element that generally decides if I’m going to be educational or exhausted: whether I have options. With my coworker, when I said I didn’t want to be the only LGBT resource for their student, I felt like I had only two options: educate them or do the work for them. I realized that I risked appearing inflexible, and though they may not have intended to restrict my choices, to me in the moment it seemed they were. 

The times when I’ve been fine have been when there’s a third option implied: “tell me if I’m wrong, do the work, or I’ll find out how to do it myself.”

Here is an example that illustrates the difference. In one of my first jobs after coming out, my boss was arranging a series of diversity training sessions for our team. She emailed me, “Hey Jessica, as you know, we’re organizing diversity and inclusion training sessions in response to [a recent institutional policy]. If you’re interested, we’re planning a session focused on LGBT students, and you’re welcome to contribute.”

What my boss did well was tell me this was going to be resolved anyway. Option 1: tell me if I’m wrong. She wasn’t wrong. This was a delightful idea. Option 2: Do the work. The work sounded appealing, and I had time, and most importantly… Option 3: If you don’t do this, it’s still going to get done. I wasn’t given a sad dichotomy where I could do the work or it wouldn’t get done.

Discomfort as an imperfect starting point

The point of unconscious bias is that you don’t really notice when it’s happening. A standard recommendation is to anticipate scenarios where your unconscious bias might manifest,[1] and then respond nondefensively to any information given to you using your conscious feelings. If we assume my coworker was totally clueless, then they still could have picked up on the very clear negative reaction I gave them.

The assumption from my coworker that they were inadequate – and I was an expert – was a reflection of their unconscious bias which seemed to say they could not understand or help to resolve Queer students’ problems because they themselves were straight. How insulting to an otherwise great teacher. 

A revised version of my coworker’s request could have just been something like this: “Hey, could you help my student because you’re LGBT too? If not, I can just send them to the office of inclusion.”

Instead, they unknowingly acted on bias and when called out, they exhibited intense discomfort, reacted defensively, and avoided me thereafter.

For my part, I also made a mistake, although I admit I still feel somewhat justified. I willingly sacrificed being effective in order to be right.[2]  Doing more work, either by working with this student or opening a discourse with my coworker, shouldn’t have been my responsibility.

While I’m adamant that it wasn’t fair or right that they expected me to do extra work, the means by which I was fighting back was blaming an individual for a problem that was not specifically their fault. Blaming my coworker for a systemic problem is like yelling at a bookcase for falling during an earthquake.

But they were clueless. It would have been more effective to try to resolve that cluelessness through conversation instead of getting angry at the pain their cluelessness caused. Instead of being a killjoy,[3] I could have said what the office mindset of “give the gay problems to the gay teacher” was doing to me as that particular teacher.

Bias from context

It’s a given that unconscious bias is not a decision one makes. Unconscious bias has to come from somewhere, and in many cases, it is coming from the person’s social context. Conflating unconscious bias with conscious bias ignores the world subtly informing each of us that our unconscious bias is right and natural. To have a full understanding of unconscious bias as a concept, you have to study the context.

When I was younger, I was critical of my friends who lived in what I perceived to be nice homes. I had been homeless for years, and I’d begun to associate homes with wealth. And homes with more than one floor? Those were extravagant, unnecessary indulgences of the decadent aristocracy plaguing the good working-class folks of central Arizona. Don’t even get me started on clean carpet or hardwood floors.

The way my bias manifested was an inadvertent infantilizing of my “rich” friends. I wouldn’t take their complaints and problems seriously because their problems felt like they couldn’t be as bad as mine. I remember once groaning about how much homework I had to do, how the advanced math course my counselor had coerced me into taking was miserable and so was I. And then a friend I had known since elementary school agreed and said they were miserable too, and I remember thinking that sounded a little silly even though we shared 4 out of 5 classes. I struggled to articulate my feelings, and it hurt my relationships with people who were just living where their parents put them.

I’d spent most of my childhood bouncing between hotels, tents, and other places that usually could not be described as a home, so achieving a stable home was the goal. Hearing people still complaining after they had, to me, made it to the finish line and beyond felt wrong. Beyond my physical environment, my social context was also influencing me. My father had grown up wealthy, only to lose everything shortly after I was born. That bitterness towards affluence – mingled with my poor perception of what wealth actually looked like – led me to develop a mistrust for anything I associated with wealth and stability.

Once I realized I was more critical of my “wealthy” friends, I was able to ignore and move past that bias. It was easy once I was away from the environment and people that fostered it. Similarly, maybe my coworker had learned without knowing it that the best resource you can give to a gay kid is a gay adult who used to be a gay kid.

We learn our bias without meaning to – from the places we live, the people near us, the media we consume. If every movie, song, parent, friend, billboard, and myth are flowers in a field we walk through every day, bias is the pollen, invisible to us but still clogging things up and making us spew unpleasantness.

In search of a better solution

I’m terribly allergic to bees. If someone unaware released a swarm of bees into my apartment, they’d be on the hook for the anaphylactic mess inside. They might not know what they’re doing could kill me, but if they were told, “hey, that thing you’re doing is hurting someone,” then it’s up to them to believe and use that information to modify their actions. If someone says you are hurting them, and you ignore that hurt and continue as you were before, your active denial moves beyond unconscious bias and into willful ignorance. 

The best solution is not always apparent. I don’t think it’s logical, compassionate, or always productive to answer the pain of bias by trying to make someone uncomfortable. Yet if we aren’t calling out unconscious bias where we see it, then how do we progress?[4]

I also believe I’m a person, a very fallible person who is often hurt by the work expected of me and the assumptions made of me. Making someone uncomfortable on purpose is just going to make them bristle, yet I also do not feel unjustified in sometimes reacting poorly to inadvertent cruelty. While I’ll work to do better when I notice I am punishing instead of trying to help someone grow, I also won’t self-flagellate if I notice I’m overtly angry when something unjust happens.

I can’t speak to what others should do. There have been ample critiques of causing discomfort by calling out prejudice whether it was purposeful or not. But I also think it is unfair to expect the people being hurt to react with cool emotions and gentleness every time. I certainly can’t. I think empathy and understanding should be a goal. If both parties can calmly communicate what their perception was and what fed into it, that’s a wonderful, ideal existence. It won’t always happen.

While I recognize that unconscious bias comes from context, when that bias hurts me, it doesn’t mean I’ll shake off any hurt, forgive extra labor, or be able to speak calmly right in that moment. It mostly means I aspire to give people more credit, time, and a chance to revise their actions once they know they were causing harm.

 


Jessica Kanzler lives in Northern Arizona with her wife and two cats, works at a non-profit teaching English literacy. Jessica primarily writes about issues of social justice, modern pedagogy, and fiction with a special interest in blog-writing.


Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed in this or other blog posts at www.leadingconsciously.com are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Leading Consciously. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.

Questions to ask ourselves:

  1. What examples of unconscious bias have you experienced?
  2. How have you handled unconscious bias when you have observed or experienced it?

Leading Consciously concepts and skills covered in this blog post:

  • Testing assumptions
    • Check to see if you are making cultural assumptions
  • Bridging differences
    • Address underlying systemic biases
    • Call in vs call out
    • As a dominant, recognize you may have blind spots as to your own behavior and systemic biases
  • Conscious use of self
    • Seek to understand others' perspectives; put yourself in their shoes

#BridgingDifferences  #Dominant/NondominantDynamics  #IntentVsImpact

 



[1] Fiarman, S.E. Unconscious Bias: When Good Intentions Aren't Enough

[2] Carroll, C. Being Right vs Being Effective

[3] Ahmed, S. (2010). Feminist killjoys (and other willful subjects). Sch Fem Online Barnard Cent Res Women, 8(3).

[4] Vuletich, H.A. and Payne, B.K.  (2019). Stability and Change in Implicit Bias.”Psychological Science, 30(6), 854–862, doi:10.1177/0956797619844270.

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