What are the top things you “shouldn’t” talk about at work? I’m sure if you started creating a list “race” would come up fairly quickly. Why is it taboo and often dangerous to talk about at work? Because “race ‘shouldn’t’ matter”…”we ‘should’ be colorblind.”…the list goes on and on as to why it’s inappropriate, unprofessional and could get you into trouble.
The reality is that racial differences exist and should be recognized, celebrated and acknowledged. When they aren’t – it’s creates a problem and an absence of psychological safety in the workplace (and at home).
Simply creating spaces to talk about “taboo” topics empowers the creation of systems and processes where unconscious biases are called out and mitigated.
So, what is unconscious bias and why is it important to understand?
“Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.
Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values. Certain scenarios can activate unconscious attitudes and beliefs. For example, biases may be more prevalent when multi-tasking or working under time pressure.” (diversity.ucsf.edu)
The first step is awareness that we each (yes, you too) have unconscious biases. We have learned these from our parents, friends, family and society. And when we make certain assumptions, decisions and actions they are normally shaped from our biases (either conscious or unconscious) and these biases can be positive or negative.
In the workplace, this shows up in a lot of different ways. For example, have you ever heard a manager say “she’s just not a good culture fit” or “he seems like he would fit in really well” or “we need to coach him/her on how to communicate here”. Many times these statements come from a place of bias, a stereotype combined with an organizational culture that is steeped in the behaviors of executive leadership. In most organizations this demographic tends to be upper/middle class, heterosexual, middle-aged, able-bodied white males (with a small percentage of exceptions).
One way to start fixing biases in a system is to first acknowledge that they exist.
For the purposes of this blog, I am talking about racial groups in the context of unconscious bias. However, it shows up around any identity, such as, gender, socioeconomic class, ethnicity, ability, religion, etc.
As humans, our brain and nervous system push us to be more comfortable in homogenous environments. When you start to integrate differences into those environments it disrupts the system and creates waves of change. This can often be difficult and bring out people’s unconscious bias which can impact their actions, decisions and ultimately the career and livelihood of other individuals.
I have found it helpful to outwardly discuss race and how it plays a part in organizations. Providing the space for everyone to speak their truth and bring their full selves to work is critical for organizational success.