A Painful Look At My Own Biases
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
This week, I had the opportunity to stare into the face of my own bias. It wasn’t pleasant.
On Monday, I was invited to lead a panel discussion at the 68th United Nations Civil Society Conference. The panel was an impressive group of well-educated, accomplished community leaders speaking about the role of business in building resilience within neighborhoods.
As we planned for the discussion, which had been billed as a “workshop” we struggled a bit for consensus about how to make what could have been a simple panel discussion into something that at least resembled a more interactive workshop.
Having interviewed more than 1,000 people for my show (some of the episodes can be seen here on Forbes), I think of myself as a competent panel moderator. I enjoy it.
One of the panelists, an African American woman about half my age, argued for breaking the audience into four groups to allow the audience to fully participate in the discussion and develop ideas for building resilience in their own neighborhoods and then report their ideas back to the full group.
I didn’t like it.
Why? What didn’t I like?
Did I not like the feedback simply because her opinion differed from mine?
Did I disregard her opinion because she was half my age?
Worse yet, did I dismiss the idea in my head because she was a woman?
Or, heaven forbid, did I resist the idea because she was black?
In the end, the group convinced me to adopt her idea. After the event on Monday, several people approached me and complimented me on the session. Every single one mentioned how much they had appreciated the opportunity to break into groups to discuss the ideas themselves. (I gave my colleague the credit for the idea.)
Now she had my full attention. Her idea for the session wasn’t just different from mine, it was better than mine. It was the defining element of the workshop’s success.
This experience has provided me with an important teachable moment to look at my own biases.
Why didn’t I like her idea?
The truth is I don’t know why I resisted it. I hope it was because I still haven’t overcome my inner arrogance and that I’d have reacted the same way to anyone on the panel making the same suggestion, including the other middle-aged white guy. That answer doesn’t speak highly of me, but I like it better than the alternatives.
Sadly, there is some circumstantial evidence pointing to other possibilities.
Like lots of Americans, I grew up in a largely white community. There was a black student in my sixth-grade class. There might have been two in my whole junior high school class. I don’t remember any in my high school—in a different, even whiter town.
When I started my career 30 years ago, I worked alongside women in the secretarial pool. I was quickly promoted. (Even then, I recognized the bias in my advancement but did nothing about it.) To this day, I remember one of the women lamenting the way that women were taking jobs and promotions away from men and somehow I couldn’t quite grasp this was ruining the global economy. (If you have to read that last sentence twice, I don’t blame you. You did read it right the first time.)
What I’m saying is that I had a lot training on how to be biased.
Thankfully, others around me have often reminded me this early social framing for my worldview was deeply flawed. I’m still learning.
It is relatively easy to spot bias in the alt-right or the liberal elite. It is more difficult to see it in myself.
As a social entrepreneur and a journalist, I have an obligation to purge my own biases.
Perhaps I have the same obligation as a human being.
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