Implicit Bias Equals Inequity

Written by: Sedruola Maruska




You would have been able to cut my excitement with a knife! I’d graduated from college and finally found a job, not in my field, but something to help me feel like I was finally an adult doing my part.

As a college student my wardrobe consisted of sweatpants, jeans, sweatshirts, and t-shirts - not exactly the wardrobe of a new professional in a highly visible position.


So, going to the mall to find some professional clothing felt amazing. While window shopping, a vision of what was possible began to form and the excitement grew.

That’s where my mind was as I walked into the store.


Two people were in the store, I made three. The two people were salespeople at the register located in the center of the store.


Being deep in conversation when I walked into the store, they spotted me. I spotted them spotting me, but their conversation continued, and I was glad they didn’t start following me.


I went over to the slacks and started shopping. I’d noticed their lack of attention, I’m not sure they had, but it didn’t matter, I’d learned to live with those types of microaggressions, so I kept it moving.

Five pairs of pants were draped over my arm and it began to get heavy. While I was picking up yet another pair of slacks a woman walked into the shop and the saleswomen stopped their conversation, greeted the woman with “Hello, how are you today? Can we help you find something?” When she answered negatively, they countered with “Well, if we can help you with anything, please let us know!”


I’d already been in the store for about twenty minutes. My arm was heavily laden with slacks and not once had they even ventured to acknowledge my presence. And yet, as soon as this woman walked in, she was met with all the help she could possibly not want to be bothered with from them. She had the luxury of turning them down and going about her business.


As the scenario played again in my head, I stood frozen. Had I acquired the ability to be invisible in the last fifteen minutes? Did I not require help, as I stood there with five pairs of pants draped over my weary arm? Why hadn’t I even received even a “hello” when I walked in?

I’m a Black woman.


She was a white woman.


To me, this was blatant, and I had to decide.


The Decision Process


Bias is one of the areas I consult and coach on. There’s implicit bias, where our subconscious minds take over and make decisions long before our conscious minds even know what’s happening. And there’s explicit bias, where we intentionally decide to be biased toward a person or situation. We all have biases, both implicit and explicit. Learning to navigate and mitigate them is key.


In this situation I had two choices. Of course there could have been many more, but for me, I felt two stood out in that moment: 1) I could buy all six pairs of pants to show them I had money, which I felt was likely one of the biases they were working with or; 2) I could put the pants down, walk away, and allow them to think whatever they wanted.


I’m not sure which bias was at work that day, but I do know either way, the burden of action was on my shoulders.


Implicit Bias Mini-Course


Many times, when scenarios like this happen, the person being impacted wants to believe it’s a case of implicit bias because it’s very hard to believe that anyone would explicitly be that biased. What also happens is, if someone is called out on their bias, they immediately go to the “that wasn’t my intent” defense.


Although it’s entirely true the intent to harm wasn’t there, the impact is what matters and needs to be addressed.


Implicit bias is informed by the messages we get over and over that allow us to make automatic decisions without thinking. The problem that arises with implicit bias is that they don’t always align with our explicit beliefs.


What does that mean?


It means that we may believe that people should be treated fairly, but in certain situations, when we need to make quick decisions, our subconscious, implicit bias makes the decision to treat someone who looks, talks, prays, or does anything differently is not worthy of the same respect as another.

Because we all have implicit bias it’s important that we become aware of that fact and therefore take a beat before we make decisions or snap judgements about anything, especially when interacting professionally.


The Final Decision


So, as I was standing there having a full-on conversation with myself about buying the pants, I realized the process of negotiation was causing me trauma. Why should I have to navigate someone else’s treatment of me instead of just making a decision that was best for me?

I decided to put the pants back on the rack and walk out of the shop.


Not looking back at the salespeople, they didn’t deserve my attention.


Feeling relieved at making a decision based on real world impact.


Shaking off any uncomfortable feelings of “what are they going to think?” Just not caring.

I’d walked in ready to spend money and walked out ready to spend it where the green of money was welcomed from my Black hand.


If being equitable in your business is important to you, consider getting coached, reading about, or taking a course on implicit bias. Because implicit bias is informed and automatic. It takes knowing yourself well enough to take a moment before making decisions. It takes realizing that who you are may not be in line with who your mind thinks you are. And when you make a mistake, because you will still make mistakes, acknowledge it, learn from it, and move forward.


The biases we hold were not cemented in a day, so they’ll take time to understand. Let’s commit to doing the work needed so when we say we want to have equitable businesses, we’re doing it with our whole selves.



 

Originally published in Issue 3 · May/June 2021 issue of SOULACY.

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