Implicit Bias and Minding the Gap
I had an experience a couple of months ago that seems to be pertinent to what’s going on in the world these days regarding racial justice. It was the height of the first wave of the pandemic. Most of the country had begun working from home, we were tired and scared and overwhelmed, and we were staying inside. I happened to leave the house one day, in my car, to do my weekly curbside grocery pickup, and I noticed what I assumed was a delivery person in an unmarked vehicle. I pulled up alongside him, to see if he needed any help finding anyone – I live in a townhome community, and it can often be difficult for folks unaccustomed to the layout in here. The gentleman was obviously nervous as I rolled down my window. I asked if I could help him find anyone, and he said he was fine. I drove off. A few moments later it occurred to me why he was nervous. You see, he was a black man, and I was a white woman, and he likely thought I was going to cause a problem for him, maybe even call the police. I felt bad, as it was certainly not my mention to make him nervous. But it’s a reality my family and friends of color live with on a daily, if not a moment to moment basis.
Lately, like many of us, I’ve been trying to gain more understanding, and reassessing my motives of why I do what I do, why I live where I live, and why I spend time with whom I do. We all have our unconscious biases, things we don’t realize we’re doing, just because that’s how we’ve always done them. It occurs to me that as a Business Analyst, I spend my time doing that with organizations for a living. But I’ve not necessarily turned that same analysis to my personal life and decision making. Do I do these things because I have implicit biases that just make me more comfortable, or because I have consciously and thoughtfully made those decisions. Like with the delivery person, was I really checking to see if he needed help? Or was I checking on him because of his color and because he stood out in our neighborhood? Our answers to these questions may be unpleasant, depending on our motives.
Which leads me to my second point, that of minding the gap. I’ve never been to the UK, but it’s apparently a well-known phrase there, which reminds people to pay attention when getting on the “Tube” (in America we call it a Subway), and not to trip in the gap between the door to the Tube and the station platform. Why would I bring this up, and what does it have to do with implicit bias? I’m glad you asked. It seems there is a theory about “empathy gaps”. Empathy gaps are where there may be a gap between what we’ve learned and been taught, and how we react when we’re in a heightened state. For example, say I’m on a diet. I’m doing well, eating as I should, and exercising regularly. In my rational state, I think I have everything under control, and I know that if someone offers me a large chocolate brownie, I’ll turn it down. Except I hadn’t planned on getting a promotion. And I’m so excited and so are my friends, and they take me to celebrate. I’m no longer in a rational state, so when they offer me the large chocolate brownie, I take it and immediately inhale it. In the moment, when it came right down to it, I had an empathy gap. Empathy gaps can also occur when we’re being influenced by a high stress event. So say I’m house hunting, which I can attest is slightly stressful, and I’m being shown a beautiful house that’s a great deal. But the neighbors are playing loud hip-hop music. I say I don’t like the house after all, and I keep looking. Is it really because I don’t like the house? Or is it because I assume that if I hear hip-hop music playing, it’s a sign of there are more diverse people in the neighborhood than I am comfortable being around? These examples are innocuous, but dig a little deeper and say I’m a police officer whose duty is to protect and serve, and in the heat of a traffic stop. Did I pull the person over because I saw a violation? Or because I saw the driver was of a different color? And if the driver appears nervous, is it because they’re frightened? Or because they’ve been up to no good? My implicit biases might be the reason I pulled them over, and my empathy gap may then cause me to overreact to their nervousness.
So – what can we do? How can we be sure we’re making sound decisions, whether in our personal lives or in our work projects? I’ve asked this question of a number of friends recently, and the responses have been unanimous: Ask the questions. Educate ourselves. Listen to understand. Mind the gap. See each other as children of God. And repeat.