An illustration of a brain with the label "bias" on some areas of it

How to Overcome Unconscious Bias

In the last few years, there has been an increase in media attention on issues related to diversity and bias. We have seen more and more conversations being had about injustices happening to minoritized communities in the news, in our social media, and in our conversations with the people around us day-to-day. While many of us have been taught from a young age about the harms of “overt” discrimination (i.e. segregation laws, hate crimes), these conversations have started to point out the needs of addressing “covert” discrimination - meaning the acts of prejudice occurring without a clear link to identity, sometimes being committed by people who don’t even realize they are treating someone differently based on identity.

As we observe the ways we can stop bias and discrimination within larger systems, it’s also important to identify ways we can stop bias in ourselves and communities. A critical area to address is unconscious bias - meaning the tendency to attribute certain attitudes or behaviors to a group of people without being aware of doing so. Unconscious bias can have just as many detrimental consequences as conscious biases; they lead to marginalized groups being less likely to be hired, to be promoted, to receive fair treatment in schools or the judicial system, to receive kindness in basic human interactions.

Am I actually biased?

Yep, you are. But before you start to panic, there’s a couple key things to remember. All humans are naturally biased towards and against different things. This is a product of how the brain works - the human brain prioritizes efficiency in most of its operations. Our brains create shortcuts in information processing called “schemas” - quick ways of categorizing the information we know in a way that requires little to no conscious thought. In our daily lives, schemas are necessary: they give us crucial information to predict how others may react, help us identify the world around us, and provide scripts for how interactions should go. When we enter a coffee shop, our brain is instantly making connections with past information and experiences. We know to walk up to the cash register to order, even if this is our first time entering this coffee shop. We know the verbal script for ordering (“Can I get a ____?”) and we know which person is the barista based on their apron and location in the store.

The problem with our brain's efficiency, though, is when schemas edge towards stereotypes. Schemas narrow our thinking and will immediately connect new information with past information, without considering if that past data is “good” or “bad”. Regardless of if you support the validity of a specific stereotype or not, that information gets brought up. For example, if you are entering that coffee shop from before and you see a man with blue jeans, a leather vest, sunglasses, and a bandana on his head, then chances are you’re going to think about motorcycles before you even realize it.

Want to understand what bias looks like for you in particular? A helpful tool that has been used in psychological research for decades now is the Implicit-Association Test (IAT). This test helps to understand aspects of implicit bias by showing how easy or difficult it is for a person taking the test to associate words and images related to identity and other concepts. You can try out a few different web IATs here:

Just because you have biases doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be done about them. There are many strategies we can implement individually and in our communities to both reduce our experiences of bias and counteract the potential effects of unconscious bias. However, you should remember that combating bias is an active and ongoing process. Research has shown that it is not enough simply for a person to be aware of bias - you must be active in your choice to be an ally!

Strategies for ourselves

If you’ve read up to this point, then you’ve already started engaging with some key strategies! Increasing our understanding of how bias and schemas work in the brain is crucial to starting to counteract them. To take these even further, you can take time to reflect on some of your experiences and the messages you’ve received about different identities and cultures. Some good questions to start with may be:

  • What was the racial/ethnic makeup of my hometown? What groups were underrepresented or not present at all?
  • What were some of the early messages I received about my gender? What toys was I given as a child?
  • How were gender and sexual minorities represented in the shows and movies I watched growing up, if at all?
  • How did my family explain religion to me? If my family practiced religion, what were the attitudes they shared about faiths different from theirs?

As you recognize more and more about the messages you received in the past and continue to receive, you can start to find ways to educate yourself. There are countless ways you can engage with education: attend lectures and workshops, read books on identity from diverse authors, consume television and cinema from communities different from your own, listen to podcasts from marginalized speakers, follow content creators and artists who don’t look like you, consume news from multiple sources (and multiple perspectives), and find other ways to hear from perspectives other than your own. Challenge yourself not only to sympathize with others’ situations but to empathize and imagine yourself in their shoes. Above all else, take the information you learn from these sources and start having conversations with the people in your life.

Strategies for our communities

Along with talking to those close to us about issues related to diversity and inclusion, we can advocate for these larger conversations to be had in all settings that we live and work in. A critical place to bring up these dialogues is in our schools and workplaces. Advocate for unconscious bias training in your office. If you are in a position of power, use the voice that you have to implement anti-bias strategies into the hiring and promotion processes. Educators and managers alike can work to find ways to bring in diversity and bias into everyday conversations.

If you want to find ways of counteracting bias but may not be in a position where you can advocate for these changes at work or school, there are other ways to be involved. Seek out political organizations to join that advocate for social change and equity. Volunteer with non-profit organizations that support marginalized communities (or donate if you are able!) You can also create smaller spaces as well, such as neighborhood task forces or book clubs that read and discuss literature about identity.

In the end, this is not a comprehensive list, nor is it a direct to-do list. There is no singular recipe for advocacy. What’s important is to recognize that diversity is not a one time conversation saved for a once a year meeting at work. It’s not a conversation only to occur when something happens in the news, either. The best way to be an advocate is to continue to bring these conversations to the table, no matter what that table may be.

For some more helpful resources, check out some of these links: