• Understanding how unconscious bias haunts us in our everyday lives •
Halloween is one of the only times of the year when it is socially acceptable to go around judging people based on how they look. It is also, perhaps not so coincidentally, a time for celebrating the darker side of human nature. As part of human nature, we judge people the rest of the year, too, except those judgments are based on unconscious bias rather than costumes.
Our unconscious biases are like ghosts that haunt our minds. They can be invisible to us, existing in a realm beyond regular awareness. Yet they mess with our heads. They cause us to see, hear, and experience things that aren’t real. Sometimes we even seem to be possessed by them, forced to do things beyond our self-control.
While we each have our own ghosts, we are all haunted by the ghosts to which our culture gives rise. That’s because culture emerges from the patterns of our collective physical and social interactions. Even as we participate in the ongoing creation of these patterns, they also serve as the contexts in which we interpret meaning in our lives.
While unconscious biases aren’t entities with specific intentions, like ghosts, they can sometimes be helpful but they can cause harm as well. Unfortunately, our culture is infused with biases and stereotypes that are especially harmful to certain identities. Surrounded by such evil spirits, the psychological and even physical well being of people with these identities are constantly under a sort of psychic attack.
Bias is a kind of pattern that forms, informs, and otherwise haunts the human mind. Our minds are designed to find patterns that help us unconsciously organize how we understand the world, relationships among things in the world, and relationships of ideas about the world. This applies to everything from how we learn to integrate our senses, to how we learn behavioral skills, to how we learn to use language.
These patterns represent our ability to find-create order in-from chaos, to the ways we sort the signal from the noise. However, finding order in chaos also involves prioritizing certain relationships over others. This prioritization of relationships is the basis of bias. As our minds give greater priority to certain relationships between groups of people and expected characteristics, the more biased we become.
This is not to say that our tendency to discriminate against each other is innate, but that we are inclined to do so when our experiences consistently reinforce certain patterns of relationship. It is a function of how our minds work. Our thinking is shaped by the patterns of the people, things, and ideas with which we interact. Biases might be inevitable, but the diversity and complexity of our experiences inform the diversity and complexity of our thoughts.
In my writing, my focus is not specific to issues of bias. For me, bias is an issue embedded within bigger questions about how the ways in which we sense, feel, think, and imagine give rise to our personal and social values. These are questions about how to facilitate change in individual and collective behavior, and the limitations of laws, politics, and economics as well as the potential of art, entertainment, and technology. These are questions about the why-how-what of education and the possibility of designing opportunities for learning that transforms us.
These are fundamentally questions about social change. From the Civil War to the civil rights movement, the social justice efforts in the United States may represent one of the most effective strategies for purposeful, community-driven social change in human history. And yet we know from current news that this change has been and continues to be an incomplete process. Not because we have the wrong answers, but because we haven’t understood the whole question.
If our aspirations for social justice rest on the top of a mountain, then our efforts can only take us so far. The mountain in question represents the cultural legacy of social injustice, but the perspective with which we see the world represents the evolutionary legacy of human nature. In the face of unconscious bias, social justice is not only about where we are going or even how we get there; it is about the things that give us a sense of direction. It is about our values.
As a personal value, social justice can be part of the internal compass that guides us in our daily lives. However, to take root and grow as a cultural value, social justice must also take form in the physical and social interactions that define our lives. There are many ways and shapes in which we can invoke, embody, and celebrate the spirit of social justice — from architecture and transportation, to philosophy and mathematics, and every form of expression in between. It’s all part of the story. This is a different dimension of social justice work, but it is essential to the cultivation of a world that is better not simply in spite of but rather because of human nature.