Imagine that you’re a police officer and the newest member of your department is a practicing Black Muslim. What biases, stereotypes or assumptions might come up for some in your department? What would you do to enhance your knowledge about this person?
This scenario was a focus of discussion during a recent workshop series I had the privilege to deliver to the entire workforce of a municipality. The client specifically requested this scenario so that all workers, including police officers could explore realistic situations and then learn how to sustain an inclusive respectful work environment. To say the discussion was lively is an understatement.
Some biases are visceral. The messages we have received throughout our life impact our ability to rationally analyze the situation before us at any given moment. These messages and experiences from our own interactions as well as those of our parents, teachers, clergy, schoolmates, co-workers, the media and society in general form our emotional memories and biases, and then they abide in our unconscious waiting to spring up when "needed." Brain science indicates this occurs partly due to the function of our reptilian brain also known as the amygdala. This part of the brain controls life functions such as breathing, heart rate and the fight or flight mechanism. This function is needed so we can make fast decisions to get though the day, but it also requires us to sometimes question the messages so that we can examine whether or not a certain bias is applicable to the current situation. Daniel Kahnema refers to this as fast brain slow brain thinking.
So even though the scenario above was just a vignette in a workshop, some participants were steadfast in their beliefs about this individual. Some of the assumptions voiced were "he might be a terrorist"; "he will expect us to stop our response to an emergency call so he can pray"; "he might not treat women in the workplace with respect"; all stereotypes that appeared valid on the surface. Initially, no one recognized that this person was a Black Muslim – a religion founded in the USA focused on the advancement of African Americans. When the word Muslim was seen, they did not see any modifiers. Once people shared and listened to each other, most realized these assumptions were biases and that they would need to get to know the individual. They recognized how fast they jumped to conclusions without considering that the hiring managers would have fully explored this person’s qualifications and background. They discovered how much they did not know about the person and how quickly all of us can learn one aspect of a person, and jump to our own stereotypes instead of pursuing the facts.
The assignment required teams to identify what they might do to expand their knowledge about this person. Some suggestions were:
• Learn about the Nation of Islam (Black Muslims)
• Ask the person how he will pray five times a day and still meet his job requirements
• Get to know more about him in general
• Google him
Ultimately, this scenario helped participants discover some of their conscious and unconscious biases, and then explore ways to use their "slow brain thinking" to determine the best actions needed. The focus of the exercise was not to determine whether the biases were valid. Each individual makes that determination personally and privately. The purpose was to create a realistic situation that would help people actually feel their thoughts and then explore them.
So, what would you do? Not everyone wants to explore in this way, however, when a critical mass of employees recognize ways they can improve their workplace, the naysayers become outnumbered and discover that expressing stereotypical beliefs is no longer acceptable. Diversity and inclusion workshops that create a safe place for people to explore bias, including unconscious bias and then move to solutions they can apply in the workplace, affords organizations the opportunity to address issues and then develop opportunities that engage all employees and create a respectful work environment for all.