How Getting Proximate Helps Combat Unconscious Bias

By Paru Desai, SV2 Get Proximate Co-Lead, SV2 Partner

This article is the fifth in a series about the principles and practice of getting proximate:

Most of us know about the resume study where researchers mailed thousands of identical resumes with the only difference being that some had stereotypically African-American names while others had stereotypically white names. Resumes with a “white” name were roughly 50 percent more likely to get a call back for an interview; the difference in outcomes was attributed to the manipulated factor: the name. This was a result of an (unconscious) judgement which either favored a group that was familiar, that is, white, or ascribed undesirable characteristics to another.

Unconscious bias, or implicit bias as it is also called, results in associations, beliefs, or attitudes toward any social group where we often attribute certain qualities or characteristics to all members of a particular group (also known as stereotyping). These attributions affect how we understand and engage  with a person or group or what we say or do, often without being conscious of our biases. This plays out in many ways in our daily lives:  who we choose to sit next to in a conference room or on the train, who our friends are, which neighborhood we choose to live in, whether we cross the street based on who is walking towards us or lock the car door in certain neighborhoods. In 2020, as we struggled to understand our individual roles in the racial justice movement and why the pandemic disproportionately affected some racial groups, we became more aware of how many unconscious biases we each hold. And many times, this truth was uncomfortable.  

Because most of us only have conscious access to 5 percent of our brains, much of this type of othering occurs at the unconscious level. This doesn’t necessarily mean we are  prejudiced or inclined to discriminate against other people. Most of us consider ourselves to be unprejudiced and are shocked when presented with examples of behavior that show our unconscious bias. It’s important to know that while unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice, it is often incompatible with one’s conscious values. So though the good news is that most of us aren’t prone to discrimination, it does mean that we have to work to understand our biases so that we can remedy the injustices that we are unwittingly participating in. 

How do we de-bias our unconscious biases? Getting Proximate allows us to become more aware of the impact of implicit bias, particularly through values like empathy and curiosity, and allows us to take a more active role in overcoming stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination. Understanding our implicit biases will also influence how we interact with systems of oppression and marginalization.  

First, it’s helpful to understand that implicit bias is a combination of two things. First, human brains pick up information and patterns and learn from it. If we repeatedly see that CEOs are male and assistants are female, that is what our brain learns. But the second part to implicit bias is the culture or environment in which we live. In our culture, historically, men have been the CEOs and women the assistants. But if the opposite were true, we would have the opposite bias. Bias is learned and constantly reinforced by our culture and environment.

So the first step is discovering things about ourselves and truths about our world and questioning them. In a presidential debate, Hillary Clinton said, “I think implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police. I think, unfortunately, too many of us in our great country jump to conclusions about each other. And therefore, I think we need all of us to be asking hard questions about, you know, why am I feeling this way?”

What Clinton is referring to is, in knowing that vast inequities exist in our society, we need to be more conscious in asking ourselves why am I crossing the street, why am I hiring this person, why did I choose to sit here, why am I holding this view or reaction about this person/group, etc… What is the truth here? Sometimes the truths may be uncomfortable but that is where we move from the unconscious to the conscious.  A group of SV2 Partners doing a walking tour of the North Fair Oaks community admitted that we were more likely to drive through, often with our doors locked, in this “other” neighborhood. It was humbling to realize that the vibrancy of the community and local businesses, including some delicious taquerias and coffee shops, was in fact not that different from the streets we were normally used to. 

Another way to get proximate is to focus on seeing people as individuals rather than on the stereotypes we typically use to define them.  I will never forget my 17 year-old telling me ‘mom he was just like us in how much he likes to travel. I’m glad I came because he’s not just a homeless man.’ She was referring to our lunch with  David, as resident of the Maple Street Shelter in Redwood City. who had lost his job as freight mover at SFO due to a back injury.  Prior to this, he loved to travel and they bonded over their favorite memories of Thailand. 

This also relates to understanding multiple narratives which we talked about in a previous article. As we hear different voices, we can pause and reflect on our responses. What was our reflexive response and was it rooted in biases or stereotypes?  Replace them with positive examples as you hear the different narratives. If I only see this community as crime ridden then I miss seeing others in the same place who are working tirelessly to help their youth break cycles of neglect, lack of opportunity and poverty.

And as the narrative starts to shift, we reinforce the empathy and curiosity cycle where empathy allows us to be in someone else’s shoes while curiosity allows us to ask, listen and connect. Curiosity helps slow us down so that we get a more accurate picture and allow for the questions that start arising:  why is happening;  how would I respond if this (injustice) was happening to me; what would I do if I was in this position;  what are the external factors that created this situation;  what was my assumption about this situation/person/group and how was it wrong;  what more do I need to learn, etc. Being curious about what is happening externally as well as internally and being open to learning from different sources allows us to better understand how others are experiencing the same situation.  Empathy and curiosity allow us to move to a commonality based on facts rather than feelings. 

One additional way we can reduce our unconscious biases is just getting out more and increasing our exposure to people from different backgrounds and experiences than our own.  When doing so, we can utilize the tools of getting proximate mentioned in this article, and in others in the series, so that these experiences are richer, more meaningful and lead to better understanding of some of our biggest divides and challenges. 

Unconscious bias carries a heavy toll on both individuals and societies — socially, politically and economically.  What resides in the unconscious part of our brain is impacted by what we have been exposed to and our environment, but by being aware of this we can take active steps, like practicing getting proximate, to counter those influences.  By consciously working to understand our unconscious, we can start to better understand ourselves as well as how to remedy the collective impact of our biases, which are usually not rooted in facts, on oppression and injustice.  As Anu Gupta, founder and CEO of BEMORE puts it, “People aren’t seeing one another. We aren’t seeing one another. We’re seeing ideas of one another.”  We can unlearn bias — by being in the presence of and getting proximate to others.