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Identifying Our Biases

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

In 1969, I was seven years old, attending a mixed-race elementary school, when I experienced an incident that left me with a lifelong question – 'how could he not like me due to the color of my skin?'. That incident, and several others that followed, led me down a lifelong path to my current investigation of biases and dehumanization. As a social justice advocate, I was taught to identify how other people, corporations, and governments MUST change to make the world a better place, but there wasn't modeling on how to identify and take responsibility for the small and not-so-small ways MY biases created harm. This paper aims to help individuals identify, come to terms with, and transcend their own biases to reduce any harm they may be perpetuating in the world and help to open their hearts to those they have closed off due to their biases.


Starting Point:

Simply asking people to identify their biases may cause a variety of responses that could include silence, anxiety, shame, laughter, defensiveness, or denial. These responses are problematic and can be more challenging than the biases themselves. I've heard many people state that they don't have or aren't aware of their biases. It isn't that they aren't aware of any biases; most of us are highly adept at identifying when we are on the receiving end of someone else's bias, as our brains are wired to recognize and hold on to threats of any nature. And biases toward us are a threat to our safety and well-being. It can also be painfully obvious when those in our circles express their biases towards those outside our circles.


Most people resist the idea that they ARE racist, sexist, etc., but they are more willing to accept the idea that a part of themselves holds, has inherited, has been taught, or was infected with such ideologies. Moving the focus from our 'full' identity (I am a racist) to a part (a part of me holds racist beliefs) is not only helpful, but I believe it is the most effective and realistic way to address these issues. (You can replace racist for any of your biases that you are aware of)


Socially, we are pressured to deny (to ourselves and others) any biases we might hold. We get caught in cycles of defensiveness, self-righteousness, perfectionism, anger, distrust, punishment, shame, fear, past and present wounds, or a commitment to being seen as a good person. These pressures can feel insurmountable, triggering shame at the slightest whiff of our own biases. Being called out, canceled, or caught in a moment of indiscretion not only brings shame but can end friendships, polarize families, and damage careers.


If identifying our biases is the first step to ending discrimination and healing the separation that occurs as a result of these biases, can we find our way to a place where it is safe to do an honest inventory?


It is important to note that EVERY human has biases. The question isn't IF we have biases; it is developing the curiosity to understand which biases we have inherited and learned and becoming curious about how they show up in our bodies, beliefs, and behaviors.


I use three terms interchangeably: biases, othering, and dehumanization, though some prefer bigotry or discrimination. Biases are any beliefs, values, judgments, hierarchy, or assessments that cause my body to clench, my heart to close, or cause me to treat people differently than I would if they expressed different attributes. It's the automatic, unconscious narrative in my head, how my body reacts to various attributes and how my energy shifts or causes my defenses to escalate. The automatic armoring stiffens my body, closes my heart, and overrides my thinking. It may cause me to look away, overlook, stay away, or dismiss individuals or groups of people. It can also cause me to want to get closer (either through recognition, i.e., you are safe, powerful, and like me, or valorization). It's that part that looks at someone and says, "You aren't like me, but I know you, I know who you are, I know what you believe in, I know what I can expect from you, and I know how you are likely to act and react. I know that you are like all the rest of 'them.'" We may feel superior to, more entitled than, better than, more valuable than… We may also feel anger, fear, aversion, or disgust.


Biases are different than discernment. We may genuinely dislike individuals for any number of rational and justified reasons, whereas a bias causes us to dislike or dismiss them due to the group or attribute they represent. For example, I have been in meetings where a women or person of color will offer a thought or idea that is dismissed, then moments later a person from the dominant culture will say the same thing and be immediately congratulated for their intelligence and creativity. For most people, this is an automatic, unconscious reaction that often conflicts with their beliefs about who they are and their values.


Biases impact who we hire, fire, and promote, where we shop, where we live, and whom we are comfortable near. It influences who we trust and who we love. It affects who we extend favors to and who we will stonewall. Who is worthy of our time, love, and resources. It impacts who we welcome and include and who is not. Biases can be subtle or overt. These behaviors may be intentional or unintentional, but typically, they are unconscious.


Remember that EVERYONE experiences this very human phenomenon. If it is an unconscious process, how does one start identifying their biases?


Resmaa Menakem shares several helpful exercises in his book "My Grandmother's Hands." He suggests that biases can first be spotted somatically in how our bodies react when in proximity to people we perceive as 'different.' He talks about the automatic physical response of clenching. Clenching, holding, armoring, and bracing are signs of biases and fear (the root of most biases).


For others, we might hear the biased narrative in the shadows of our thoughts. Bishop Desmond Tutu tells the story of getting on a plane and seeing two black pilots. He was proud of their accomplishments until they hit turbulence over the ocean. As the plane bounced in the air, his unconscious response was to wonder if there was a white pilot on board who could take over. Shocked at his own thought, he came to realize the power of internalized racism, even for a man such as himself.


The following exercises will help you to uncover and reflect on your biases:

Below are five exercises that will assist you in unraveling this complex and multifaceted process. Exercise 1 starts with your body, which provides clues to your unconscious experiences related to safety by how it reacts to different groups of people. Exercises 2 and 3 will help you explore the historical, cultural, and family conditioning you have been exposed to and where you are overvalued or undervalued in society. Exercise 4 will illustrate how your unconscious biases affect your perceptions and expectations. Exercise 5 will take you through the steps of listing your biases. You will find journaling each exercise beneficial, or find a trusted partner to do these exercises with and discuss your insights.


Exercise 1: Learning the clues of your body.

Introduction and instructions: Our bodies respond more quickly than our minds to experiences of comfort or threat. Too often, we don't pay attention to these bodily messages. This exercise will help you develop the skills to receive and decipher the somatic messages that impact our receptivity to others.


Find a safe and comfortable place.

Think about a time when you were in a place where you felt/knew you belonged, where you were secure. Where you knew the people around you loved and accepted you, and everything was consistent, predictable, and safe.


Now think about your body in that situation and how did you feel mentally, emotionally, and physically?


Does love, joy, comfort, safety, nurturing, relaxation, ability to breath, calm, peacefulness, openheartedness, laughter, and trust capture the essence of the situation? Think about how your body felt towards the people in the space. Were you relaxed, soft, unarmored, calm… we tend to find a place of harmony and coherence in these situations. Was it restorative? How does it feel to be fully and unapologetically yourself?


Hold onto that feeling and settle into it for a few moments.


Now, think about a place or time when you didn't feel welcome or safe to be yourself. In a workplace, specific neighborhoods, various stores, or around certain groups. How does your body feel in these situations? Are you armored, closed, protected, defensive, tight, and constricted? Do you want to stay, or do you want to leave? Follow your thoughts – what kind of narrative is filling your brain? What emotions arise?


As we attune to our bodies, we pay attention to where our body is relaxed or tight and when our hearts are open or closed. As you adjust to the edges of your unconscious/conscious mind, please pay attention when you are curious or judgmental. When you engage with folks you see as 'different,' pay attention to the initial automatic narrative.


As intuitive beings, we can pick up the subtle and not-so-subtle teachings from our loved ones, communities, churches, country, friends, and society. We quickly learn who is safe, who is loved, and what is valued, or not. None of us want to be in the 'not' group.


Exercise 2. History, Culture, and Family Conditioning

Introduction and instructions:

These six questions will start to uncover the origins of our biases. Read through each of the questions and the reflections at the end before taking the time to ponder and answer each question. I recommend you spend 5+ minutes per question as a starting point. Journal any insights or discuss them with a friend/colleague. When discussing your experiences, note how you related to your friend before hearing their answers. Were any assumptions dispelled? Where were there similar and dissimilar experiences?


1. Describe the place/circumstances where you grew up.


2. What cultural groups and practices did you encounter in your youth – ethnic, race, class, religious, sexual orientation, etc.?


3. What messages (from family, peers, media, etc.) were you given/taught about people who were "different"? (Positive? Negative? What were the stories?)


4. How has your background/experiences influenced your perceptions of other 'cultures/groups' in your personal or professional settings?


5. Think about a time when you experienced being or feeling 'different' in a group of people – for example, from an ethnic, gender, class, political, religious, or other perspective. Then, identify and share what others did that helped or hindered you to feel more welcomed.


6. What are the broader cultural narratives about the groups you experience as 'different'?


Reflect on your experiences and how you answered these questions. Understanding how, when, where, and why you developed or inherited your beliefs about 'difference' is critical as you consider the possibility of dismantling them. Also, please take a few moments to consider the possibility that the people around you have very different experiences and beliefs about difference based on where they grew up and what their families believed. Many of us get stuck in self-righteousness and believe that the way 'we' do it is the right or best way. Do you think that you grew up normal and, therefore, those who grew up in different situations and circumstances were abnormal? Learning that there are multiple ways to grow up, approach a problem, or live a life can be challenging or freeing.


Exercise 3: Cultural Conditioning

Introduction and instruction: Various attributes are overvalued or undervalued in every culture. We learn to value or devalue people based on how the culture views them, and these values change over time. Understanding how our culture influences our values and perspectives is essential when understanding how our biases are learned and absorbed. After reading through the list, reflect on and write about the reflection questions below.


Think about the cultural values that you inherited. What attributes are socially overvalued, and which ones are undervalued?


Attribute Overvalued in the U.S.

Economic Status Wealth

Gender Male

Religion/Faith Christian

National Origin US-born

Sexual Orientation Hetero/Cisgender

Physical ability Able-bodied

Race/Ethnicity White/European

Education College/Professional

Cognition Neurotypical

Others? (this is a short list and may vary based on situation/circumstances. Add those that are important to you)


Attributes that are overvalued become culturally normalized.


Which of these values did you identify with or manifest? Do you exhibit both overvalued AND undervalued attributes? Most of us do. Think about times when your overvalued attribute was the focus of attention vs. times when an undervalued attribute was the focus of attention. How did you feel in each of these situations? How did your body respond? What thoughts were running through your mind? Were you in a flow or in conflict? Were you openhearted or closed?


Attributes that are overvalued become culturally normalized. Systems, institutions, and expectations are built around these 'norms.' We draw cultural and social power when we manifest overvalued attributes.


Reflections: Which of these values did you identify with or manifest?

Do you exhibit both overvalued AND undervalued attributes? Most of us do.

Think about times when your overvalued attribute was the focus of attention vs. times when an undervalued attribute was the focus of attention. How did you feel in each of these situations? How did your body respond? What thoughts were running through your mind? Were you in a flow or conflict? Were you openhearted or closed?


Exercise 4: Unconscious Biases from Cultural Conditioning

Introduction and instruction: This exercise helps to illustrate how our history and cultural conditioning affect our perspectives and expectations based on the norms of society. You may feel compelled to counter your first image or thought for something more 'politically correct'; please resist the urge and note the image without judgment. Journaling can be a helpful tool to process this exercise and the following questions.


Read the list of jobs/roles/attributes below, pause between each, and note the image and characteristics of the individual that immediately pop into your head.

  • Doctor

  • Inmate

  • Nurse

  • Rapper

  • Wealthy

  • Police officer

  • Lawyer

  • Dropout

  • Athlete

  • Accountant

  • Poverty/poor

  • Single parent

  • Felon

  • Teacher

  • Basketball player

  • Judge

  • Janitor

  • Farmer

  • Immigrant

  • Boxer

What were the first images that popped into your mind? What did you notice? How did you feel about the images that filled your head? Did the images cause you to feel judgmental, frustrated, embarrassed, or justified?

We have all been influenced by media, education, and first-hand experiences that shape our beliefs about who is qualified or likely to fill specific roles. To break these cycles, we need to understand where we taught these ideas and challenge them.


Exercise 5: Making a list.

Introduction and instruction: There is significant value in listing your biases. While it can feel embarrassing or threatening to write a list, understanding the origins, how cultural norms have influenced them, and the impact of your personal experiences will support you in dismantling what you have been taught. It will start the process of becoming more openhearted. If we don't understand these aspects, releasing these biases and opening our hearts will be difficult.

You may choose to keep your list confidential.


Remember, unconscious bias will likely NOT align with your conscious or aspirational views of how you see yourself – which is why, in part, we may be embarrassed or ashamed to acknowledge them. As you list your biases towards others, you may also be aware of an internal 'what about me and how I've suffered' narrative. If this arises, writing a parallel list of biases that have occurred toward you simultaneously may be helpful.


List the biases you're currently aware of:

Once you have a list started, consider adding additional categories to deepen your understanding.


Remember - We are wired with an innate need for safety and a strong desire for consistency, predictability, certainty, and shared beliefs. This is why we create in-groups and out-groups, and navigating 'difference' can be difficult.


If you are still struggling to identify your biases, think about your reactions when someone disagrees with you about any of the following: class, race, gender differences, religion, politics, taxes, reproductive rights, or the Second Amendment. In today's day and age, the list seems endless. Are you open and curious to other people's opinions and thoughts, or does your heart close, your heart rate increase, or are your thoughts towards the people who oppose you diminishing, demeaning, or demonizing?


Additional categories:

  • Year (if there was a critical incident or event)

  • Personal experience – was there a direct experience?

  • Family burden – what did you learn from your immediate family?

    • What were the family stories about 'them'?

  • Cultural burden – is this a cultural/social belief about ‘them’?

    • What is the dominant group narrative about this group?

  • Legacy burden – is this a belief held through multiple generations?

    • When did it start?

    • The degree of energy it holds for you. Low --> High

  • What emotions are evoked? Uncomfortable --> Disgust

  • Is this an Internalized Bias? Such as when BIPOC people undervalue dark skin or when women undermine women’s rights.

  • What stories lie behind the bias? (if you know)

  • What narrative automatically pops up when you think about or come into contact with 'them'?

  • How are you triggered?

    • mentally,

    • physically,

    • emotionally,

    • sense of connection

Exploring the dominant group narrative regarding your identity (your social location) and those you have biases toward will help you understand how the culture has influenced you.


Conclusion

I am aware of and working on 23 of my own biases, and I suspect more will surface with time and deeper understanding. I don't believe we can completely eliminate our biases, but we can learn to spot them, mitigate the power of their deception, and reduce the harm they create. One way to do this is to normalize conversations about biases in our families, workplaces, and communities.


As you work on your list, pay attention to any resistance or rationalization that comes up, as well as the emotions and any physical manifestations (tightening in your chest, nervous legs, shortness of breath, sleepiness, or other distractions). These clues will be invaluable in your work moving forward.


An example of a bias from my list of 23:

Groups of young black men

I grew up in the 60's in a mixed-race neighborhood that was impoverished and, at times, violent. When the fights were with the black kids, it held a different energy for me than it did when I fought with the white kids. Today, I attribute that to the cultural racism of the era. My father was anti-racist, but my mother was afraid of black folks. When we drove through predominantly black neighborhoods, her fear escalated. She would ask my father to avoid certain streets, or she would ask everyone in the car to lock their doors (pre-power locks). I also learned, directly and indirectly, about race from my grandparents, great-grandparents, family friends, the church, and the educational system. In 1986, one of my dearest friends was murdered in a liquor store holdup. The only detail about the murder was that it was a black male. Before that incident, I would have told you that I didn't hold ANY bias towards black folks. After his murder, all the cultural and legacy burdens spilled forth through my grief and anger.


Years: 1969 (7 years old), 1974 (12 years old), and 1986 (24 years old)

Personal experiences: Fight with and bike stolen when I was 7, desegregation of school at 12, murder at 24.

Family burden: mothers fear, grandparents generalized racism, a family burden that you MUST fight anyone who challenges or takes from you.

Cultural burden: cultural narratives about young black men being violent, over-sexual, and hatred towards White people

Legacy burden: Slavery, Jim Crow, Civil rights, War on drugs/Mass incarceration

Energy: It has been high in the past – after the murder. It's much lower now due to the work I've done.

Emotions: Fear, unpredictable

Internalized: no

Story: They have every right to be angry, and they may express their anger through violence

Narrative: Am I safe? How can I signal to them that I am safe or one of the good ones?

Triggers:

Mentally: assessing my safety

Emotionally: am I safe?

Physically: numbing, elevated heart rate

Sense of connection: I see myself as separate


Healing Journey: Violent incidents, along with family, culture, and legacy burdens learned in childhood, created a general sense of fear that lay dormant. The murder of my friend uncovered the parts of myself that held racist beliefs. After my friend's murder, I participated in the 1987 March on Forsyth County in Georgia; I started participating in 'Racial Healing' workshops and educating myself on slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement. In 2002, I co-founded an inner-city basketball league focused on non-violence. In 2011, I started facilitating national trainings on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion). In 2012, I co-founded the Greater Grand Rapids Racial Equity Network. In 2015, I worked in inner-city Detroit, and from 2016 – 2020, I worked for the Urban League of West Michigan. These experiences were vital in addressing and expanding my understanding of how these biases limited me and hurt this community. All of these efforts were helpful, but there were still parts of me holding on to racialized beliefs. IFS (Internal Family Systems) provided an opportunity to get to the roots of these beliefs, address a legacy burden, and heal the parts that were committed to keeping me safe by holding on to the racist ideology .

Addressing and healing one's biases is a long and complicated process. We know that, as humans, we are susceptible to family, cultural, and legacy burdens that suggest we are unsafe around certain groups of people and need to protect ourselves. Starting a list of biases can trigger our shame and defenses, but we must move past these initial reactions to uncover the truth. There are three lies associated with any of our biases. The first suggests that some of us are less worthy (due to age, skin color, gender identity, etc.). The second suggests that some of us are more worthy due to those same factors, and the third lies suggest that, somehow, we are safer if we remain separate. We are not.


Every time I have identified one of my biases and worked through understanding its origin and unburdening my fears and ignorance, I have been freed to create authentic, loving relationships with folks who experience life differently. I may not be able to change the world, but I can take responsibility for the harm and the love I create. So can you.


The first step towards healing is having the courage and insights to identify your biases. I will be addressing healing techniques in a future paper. Please subscribe to stay updated. Thank you for joining me on this journey.


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