The Impact of Unconscious Bias


As a black, Latina, queer, woman, I am surrounded by unconscious bias all the time and every day. I first notice unconscious bias at an early age. When I was 14 years old (an eighth grader), I wrote a school essay, about how people assumed that I was just a black girl when they would walk pass me on the streets, but in fact, I am of mixed race, even though my name (Karla Lockhart) doesn’t imply it nor do I have an accent when I speak, like most Spanish people.

I am Afro-Latina. (If you click on ‘Afro-Latina’, there’s a link to short video from ESPN that defines what and who are Afro-Latino. One of my family members, Victoria Benitez, is represented in the video.) My mother is Puerto Rican, my father, African-American. I was named after my father, Charles, and in Spanish, the feminine form is Karla –> Charles = Carlos = Karla. The name ‘Karla’ means ‘Strength, Strong and Womanly’ as a Scandinavian, German, Austrian name. It also means “a great, loyal friend; someone who gives all of themselves in any relationship, honest, faithful, pure in heart, true to one’s self “.

Names are the beginning of respecting someone. Respecting your true self and making sure others respect you. We start changing who we are at the expense of ourselves to accommodate other people when they can’t pronounce our name correctly or they try to change it and give you a new name. For example, when someone cannot pronounce a person’s name like “Miguel”, she/he wants to change the name “Miguel” to “Michael” in order to immediately feel comfortable. That is the  bias that shows up. Simply because “I am not comfortable with saying your name as part of my daily routine. I immediately want to assimilate you and change you in order to make me feel comfortable.” By not respecting my name, I already feel less than you because you did not try hard enough to even want to get to know me. To simply learn how to pronounce or even spell my name.

What is Unconscious Bias?

First, what is bias? Bias is a shortcut based on patterns and an automatic response or an inclination. For example, what color is a piece of paper? White. What do cows drink? Not milk. Don’t make fast, automatic, impulsive, emotional judgments about other people. Slow down and make a more conscious, analytical and rational judgment. Ask questions. Don’t make assumptions. But have the willingness to see, hear, listen to others in order to understand who they are.

What Triggers our Biases? When we are…

  • Tired
  • Multitasking
  • Stressed
  • Busy
  • Pressured for time

The New Science of Bias

  • Most biases occur unconsciously
  • We don’t have the biological capability to see our biases in the moment
  • You can more easily detect bias in others than in yourself
  • Being aware of your bias doesn’t change it. You have to choose how to respond
  • We can only mitigate the impact of biases

Types of Bias

  • Affinity – A preference for others who are similar to themselves
  • Confirmation – The tendency to search for, interpret, and remember information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions
  • Halo Effect – An overall impression of a person influences how we feel and think about his or her character
  • Benevolent – A desire to do good to others; goodwill (i.e Women in the military. Women should be at home taking care of the children, when men should be also taking care of the children)

Unconscious Bias is about self-awareness.

It is understanding cultural humility in introspective of ourselves. What are your fears? What are your assumptions? What are beliefs, ideas, or values?

In psychology, Cognitive Dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to their beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas or values.

For example, our eyes influences our hearing, our thoughts, our decisions. Our eyes influence how we perceive each other. How we make assumptions on others. Bias assumptions.

We have to be aware of and understand cultural norms and traditions. Some cultures may seem passive but really they are being respectful to their elders or wait to be called on to answer a question.

How Does the Brain Work?

  • We interpret and judge the world through our lenses based on our backgrounds
  • We make decisions from our past or unconscious.
  • We all have bias. It doesn’t make us bad people. It only makes us human.
  • Fight or Flight, Friend or Foe, Us vs Them

Whole Conscious Leader

How we interact with others determines who we really are. There are 3 identifiers that we all use to make decision, judgments and assumptions.

Head (Creativity) – Packed with belief systems. The ability to envision and develop new ideas, ways and knowledge.

Heart (Compassion) – The intentional connecting, reaching out to others to help them develop and engage. Understand who you are and practice self-compassion.

Guts (Courage) – The ability and willingness to act in the face of fear, adversity and challenges. The courage to speak up for yourself and others.

Most everyone uses the first two (Head and Heart) more than their gut feelings. We need to capitalize on the guts (the intuition). Break traditions, break familial norms, cultural norms, societal norms for change, for innovation and creativity for new ways of looking at the same problem.

How Do We Capitalize on Your Gut Reactions and Break Assumptions, Stereotypes, and Biases?

  1. Identify patterns in your lives. Patterns in how individuals elevate, assess, interact, think, and work with other people. We need to learn how to disassociate from these patterns.
  2. Understand how our everyday biases impact individuals
  3. Build practical steps to reducing the impact of unconscious bias within our everyday lives.

You can mitigate your bias, but you cannot get rid of biases.

Tools to Mitigate Bias

Micro-Messages – “We see things as we are, not as they are” – Anais Nin, French writer

  • Micro-Affirmations – are subtle or apparently small acknowledgements of a person’s value and accomplishments. They may take the shape of public recognition of the person, “opening a door,” referring positively to the work of a person, commending someone on the spot, or making a happy introduction.
    • “…small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others to succeed.” – Mary Rowe, MIT
  • Micro-Inequities – a theory that refers to hypothesized ways in which individuals are either singled out, overlooked, ignored, or otherwise discounted based on an unchangeable characteristic such as race or gender.
    • “…small events which are often ephemeral and hard-to-prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’” – Mary Rowe, MIT

Unconscious bias shows-up and contributes to Micro-inequities

  • Entitlement
  • Ableism
  • Racism – (Micro-Aggressions)
  • Ageism
  • Sexism
  • Privilege
  • Dominance
  • Oppression
  • Classism
  • Islamaphobia
  • Anti-semitism
  • Homophobia – (Micro-Aggressions)

“You can out-distance that which is running after you,

but not what is running inside you”

– Rwandan Proverb

I would like to ask my readers to comment on one or more questions regarding Unconscious Bias. I would love to hear your stories!

  • What are some assumptions that people have made about you that is not true?
  • Where do you see bias?
  • What can you do to mitigate that bias?
  • Who are we including & excluding?
  • Who are we encouraging and praising?
  • Who are we building friendships with?
  • Whose contributions are we most likely to recognize?
  • Whose mistakes are we most likely to notice
  • Is there anyone whose contributions we may sometimes overlook?