Unconscious Bias: Why Perspective Matters

04/08/2019

Everyone has some form of unconscious bias, and most of the time it’s not necessarily the fault of the person who was unaware. But many of them are, at times, damaging stereotypes, or can be hurtful or exclusionary (inadvertently or blatantly) towards whichever demographic or group it’s targeted at. Understanding perspectives other than your own – particularly those that are the opposite of your own – is incredibly important.

I do want to start this piece off by explaining what I mean when I say people guilty of unconscious bias are not always at ‘fault’. That is not to excuse whatever biases they possess, whether damaging or not, but boils down to perspective. If someone has never been made aware of a certain perspective or experience, or are genuinely ignorant of an aspect of that experience, then rather than chastising them for being ignorant, it becomes a chance for education and increasing their understanding.

A simple example of this I have seen used on a number of occasions is ableism. Take these scenarios:

  • An online content creator makes a video and uploads it to YouTube. They’re new to the scene and have a growing but relatively small audience. A deaf person, or a colour-blind person, comes across the video and finds that it is not accessible to them – either there are no captions, or perhaps the colours used are difficult or impossible for people to see properly. For some examples, I saw a lecture recording that had captions added after some comments requested them as the audio was too difficult to understand, or (because they were completely deaf) unable to view it at all; in another case, a gaming channel I have followed changed the colours of a couple of their symbols (that denoted specific sections of an episode) at the behest of some colour blind people who could not differentiate them previously.
  • Locations that are inaccessible to those, say, in a wheelchair – no ramps or lifts that allow them to enter whatever space it is.
  • Many people may not have visible disabilities, but when they use car parking spaces or public transport seats reserved for disabled people, there have been cases where they have been harassed and accused of not being disabled. One example a female friend of mine told me was women with endometriosis, which has – wonderfully – received more attention in recent years. (Thankfully, my friend has never personally dealt with harassment for this).

With the exception of the last one perhaps – because harassing someone using a disabled parking spot, for example, is pretty low – the people who were behind the unconscious bias aren’t ‘wrong’ for not having catered to the people affected by it if they genuinely did not think of it. If you, or someone you know, does not have those kinds of disabilities, or it doesn’t make up a major component of your life, then you could be forgiven for making those kinds of errors.

Once people are made aware of those kinds of issues, most of the time the person responsible will take steps to rectify it – as the people in the two YouTube cases did. There might be a case one could argue about whether or not the person should have known those things beforehand, but my point here is that these biases are called unconscious for a reason – if someone is not aware of something, tell them about it. Add your perspective to the conversation and inform them.

Now, the ableism example is, as I said, a simple one to introduce people to the concept of unconscious bias – many, once made aware of them, tend to agree and adjust their perspective to be more inclusive. But what about touchier, more divisive issues – racism, sexism, LGBT+ discrimination, etc.?

These ones get trickier, I think, because even when people are made aware of any unconscious biases they may have, they tend to double down and explain how not racist or not sexist they are. Rather than admitting their view on something is flawed or only half the story, it’s easier to believe that your stance is right. I’ll give a personal example, one that I’m not exactly proud of but that I have long since discarded.

When you go to a major city – as I do to go to university – there is an incredibly diverse range of people, which is great. But I had a habit for a short period of time in my first year of university where I would – unconsciously – see Muslim women in full niqab dress and feel mildly uneasy, sometimes even stepping a bit further away. Sound awful, I know. But I very quickly realised this was happening, and after I asked myself why, I had no answer. There was absolutely no reason for me to feel uneasy – they were just people walking in and out of university. Some of them even had prams with children.

I was just not used to the idea of someone being so fully covered – I didn’t understand it. It wasn’t the ‘norm’ in the world I grew up in, and sadly the world where it is normal is often perceived in an incredibly negative light in Western society. I am in full support of freedom of religion, indifferent about how anyone dresses, and enjoy the diversity that my education has exposed me to – even I was guilty of some small, dumb, unconscious bias. Again, I am grateful that was extremely short-lived.

Now, what changed my perspective? Admittedly, not because I spoke to any Muslims – there’s only one person from my old workplace that I know for certain is, and ironically (for this point) she did not even wear a hijab or anything of the sort. No, for me it was just increased exposure – getting used to seeing it frequently – and growing my general knowledge. By no means an expert on the Islamic faith, I know enough about it and a lot about international affairs and the like that my understanding and perspective just expanded with time and reading.

It’s that simple really.

The same thing applies to instances where men express unconscious bias towards women in some fashion. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with one friend – the one with endometriosis – about her conditions and the surprising amount of ignorance over them. Here, again, I do not mean ignorance in a necessarily bad way, but just genuinely not having known about it beforehand. When I met this friend last year, what they described to me was almost exactly like what someone else I knew had, but that person regrettably (when I knew them) was never diagnosed with endometriosis, if it were indeed that – they were thrown from bewildered doctor to bewildered doctor who didn’t have a clue what to do.

I have another friend, who I have mentioned on this site before, that is studying midwifery. In it, there is much more than just midwifery that they discuss. The history and current state of feminism constituted an entire unit, from memory, and there was a huge emphasis on cultural understanding in at least one or two others so far. I’ve learned a lot simply by offering to proofread her assessment pieces, even though I have no interest personally in midwifery itself. It’s the perspective and knowledge that gets me involved (mostly just helping a friend out, of course, but there are extended benefits).

So when I approach discussions on the issues of gender or sexism, I feel comfortable in my understanding and perspective, and if not I ask. Does that make me infallible? No. Does it make me an authority on the matter? Absolutely not – I defer all authority on a given demographic to that demographic, and while I will happily add my voice in support I by no means intend to replace or talk over theirs.

There are countless avenues that this idea could be taken down, and for each one there are undoubtedly many, many sources you could find that would detail them much better than I could. Here I just wanted to talk about something that I have thought about recently and leave you with the advice in the title: perspective matters. Not everyone will know everything, unconscious bias will probably always exist in some form, and the best way to approach it is not through ridicule or, if you’re the one with the bias, defensiveness, but instead through education and taking the time to listen to other voices.

Who knows – maybe one day, you might be the unintentional victim of another’s unconscious bias.

 

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