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Unconscious Bias: What does it Mean?

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Last week, I watched an eye-opening podcast on systemic bias against blacks in the workplace as well as in life in general. For those of us who have not lived the life of constant discrimination by race, broadcasts on this topic are essential to give us insight and a balanced perspective. We can never walk a mile in those shoes, but we can learn from those who have. Near the conclusion of the broadcast, one of the moderators quipped about all the boomers still in the workforce. These older workers have an outdated sense of equality compared to younger generations. It was implied that things will be more diverse when they are gone. My knee-jerk reaction, because I do walk in those shoes, was anger. “I think she just called me out as a racist because of my age!” Then it suddenly seemed ironic and funny. As we embroiled ourselves in a serious, meaningful, and necessary discussion about racism, we seemed to be exchanging one form of discrimination with another: ageism.


Obviously, this was not the time to bring up my old whiteness as a topic in this discussion. Black lives matter, and it would be wrong to dilute that message with a racist-sounding rant about how hard I have had to work. Frankly, I have been privileged for my whole career, not intentionally, but because it was the environment into which I was born. I recognize the need to hear what others are saying in order to learn and improve. I know the person responsible for the comment about boomers, and I know it was an unintentional slip and not a direct statement of prejudice toward me.


I know how hard it can be to refrain from using common thoughts and phrases out of context. Once I was speaking to a group of people about personal branding. Somehow the expression that the wrong brand image could result in being treated like a “red-headed stepchild” crept into my mouth. Almost immediately, a hand shot up in the audience… yep, a woman with shockingly red hair! I do not remember my excuse and apology verbatim, but should I have to explain that this commonly used term for anything singled out for abuse was an innocent slip? Maybe not, but It did make me aware that this saying could be hurtful to someone who had suffered such injury.


Awareness is not rocket science, but it is too easy to slough off a grave psychological issue and treat it as if it were trivial. We need a common-sense set of rules to guide us.


  • A comment that marginalizes any group of people because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or any other physically uncontrollable characteristic affects all people within that group individually. These comments stereotype an individual regardless of how closely they associate with the group.
  • Treating a person unfavorably because of their apparent membership in a group is an unfair penalty. Disparate treatment shows a lack of appreciation for their freedom as an individual. Discrimination becomes problematic when someone is a victim of prejudice rather than valuing them based on merit.
  • Pay attention when people talk about their experiences. If you aren’t seeking out diverse opinions, you may be losing a significant thought process that is important to your life. True diversity isn’t always external but lives within us, and we display it through our thoughts, ideas, and words.
  • Words, sometimes even silence, can slice like a sword into those who are continually slighted by society or their employer. The perception of injustice is an essential factor to consider despite the intent. Awareness of how others see words shows intellectual maturity.


The bottom line is that unconscious bias manifests itself in unintended outcomes. Does it matter? Of course, it does! We don’t need to walk on eggshells, but we do need awareness, forgiveness, and remorse. We also need to be brave enough to talk about those three things.

Image Credit © Simone



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