On December 15th, Communities Foundation of Texas was lucky enough to host a talk by Shankar Ventantam, NPR’s social science correspondent and the host of the Hidden Brain podcast. His talk, Hidden Bias, Hidden Harm, was about unconscious bias and its effects on us as individuals and as a community. Unconscious biases are biases that we are unaware of and which happen outside of our control, and usually, our knowledge.
Shankar said that most people, when they think about bias, think of overt racism, sexism, or homophobia. These are conscious biases – those that have a big effect, that you can point to how they clearly favor one kind of person over another. By contrast, the role of unconscious bias seems very mundane suggests Shankar. However, he argues, these are the biases of which we should be most concerned.
Shankar likens conscious bias to an aircraft carrier and unconscious bias to the tide. He points out that while the aircraft carrier is very dramatic and has a lot of power, the tide’s power, while subtle, is even greater. You can’t point to any drop of water and say this drop of water carries the tide; each drop’s minuscule movements are amplified over billions of other drops increasing the power of the tide with each drop. That’s what happens with unconscious bias because the bias is so widespread, and shared with so many people, it affect us without our awareness of the consequences of these biases.
Each drop in the tide doesn’t feel like it is moving anywhere. One drop moves in the same way as the other drops following the momentum. Shankar asks us to consider ourselves as a drop of water in that tide. Just as each drop in the tide feels like it is being acted upon, not the one acting, so do we.
If you actually want the tide to change, you have to be the drop that says “Let me change.”
If you want to change the tide, you can’t wait to act until the tide around you starts to change. It takes one person to start moving in a different direction. However, warns Shankar, does that mean that you’re going to change the tide? No it doesn’t. Most of those individual efforts are not going to be effective. But if enough people for long enough periods of time make the effort, that’s how the tide starts to change.
For more information about unconscious bias, read Shankar’s book The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives.