It's pronounced - Truh-mere
Yes, I’m Black
No, I am not angry
No, I am not here to harm you or yours
No, I am not lazy
No, I am not a criminal
No, I am not sex-crazed
No, I do not do drugs
No, I did not achieve because of any advantage
No, I do not expect special treatment
Yes, I am ethical
Yes, I am able to get along with others
Yes, I ‘speak well’
Yes, I am intelligent
Yes, I am qualified
Yes, I have experience, including managing others
Yes, we can now speak about the matter at hand…
This is what overcoming unconscious (and sometimes conscious) bias feels like. In the majority of my encounters in the workplace and business, I have felt as if I am answering the above (and many other) questions, before I am able to actually get down to business. Disproving people’s initial impressions of a large, black man here in America has been a part of what I have had to do my entire adult life and it’s tiresome.
Disarming my audience has become so ingrained in what I do it happens on an unconscious level. For example, I smile a lot. I am generally a very happy person, so that wouldn’t surprise anyone that knows me. However, it was pointed out to me at a seminar on ‘Unconscious Bias’ when I was in high school. The speaker, noticing I was one of only a few minorities there, theorized that part of the reason I smile so much is to disarm people. This was a revelation to me. But as I thought about it more and more, I could not deny that it was true. The fact is being black or being heavy or being Muslim or being a woman or being gay or a member of any other stereotyped group, in a business setting, comes with the additional burden of learning behaviors that help disarm people against their biases, otherwise, we’re quickly dismissed.
So, if you ever find yourself going through a mental checklist similar to the one above when dealing with someone different than yourself…don’t. It belittles you. It insults the person with whom you are interacting. And, it wastes valuable time you could be using more productively.
Don’t feel bad or deny that you have these unconscious biases, we all do. However, understand that this is a mental shortcut and can be completely inaccurate. These shortcuts are designed to allow humans to scan their environment and stay safe. By and large, work is a very safe place. So, allow your brain the opportunity to gather some information before deciding who or what someone is, especially at work.
That notwithstanding, beware of confirmation bias. In other words, don’t latch on to the first piece of information that confirms your biases about someone. Give people a chance. Base your opinions of them on your experiences with them. Notice I said experiences, plural. Do not jump to a conclusion based on stereotypes and misinformation in your head.
Learn about your unconscious biases by listening to your thoughts and mental self-talk. Understand that we all have these biases but it doesn’t mean that we should give them merit. Stop and think before letting your biases guide your actions. So, before you hesitate to hire that Consultant (wink, wink) or put that resume in the ‘No’ pile, or you deny someone an assignment or look someone up-and-down before speaking to them or ask an inappropriate question that has nothing to do with the subject at hand or deny someone an opportunity…make sure it is based on solid, non-biased information. Otherwise, your lack of serious, considerate thought may cause you to miss an opportunity.
Tremier L. Johnson is the principle HR Consultant for TLJ HR Consulting and Lacuna Partners.