Your Stories of Battling Unconscious Bias

Julianna Brion
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Is it possible to be prejudiced without realizing it? In “Is This How Discrimination Ends?,” the writer Jessica Nordell unpacked the complex and controversial science of implicit racial bias—the idea that people can act in biased ways even when they sincerely reject discriminatory ideas. Many readers responded with stories of their own experiences with bias, whether witnessing it, being the victim of it, or recognizing it in themselves.

On the receiving end, Sherletta McCaskill, who’s black, detailed her time working at an organization that serves homeless youth:

I was promoted to a new position but paid less than my male white co-worker, though I had more experience. This same co-worker revealed to me that management said I needed to “prove myself” first. To the organization’s credit, this division of the company did invest in diversity and anti-racism training. However, the results were very shallow. Workers of color who spoke up were seen as divisive, while workers who “stayed in their place” were rewarded. We could speak about issues of race as long as we didn't make white people feel uncomfortable.

Another reader recalled a bank manager’s two reasons for why he brought a white man with a high-school degree into a management-training program, but not the head teller—a black woman who’d graduated college:

“He reminded me of myself when I was just starting out.” And, even more damning (but still totally unconscious): “He just looked like a banker.”  

And then there’s this cringe-worthy story, from Marilyn Mackay:

In 1961, I moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands, which at that time was populated easily by 85 percent black residents. It was Saturday morning as I walked down the main street of Charlotte Amalie and saw a large crowd of white tourists who had just disembarked from a cruise ship. They had all stopped walking down the street staring at something behind me. As I reached them, a gentleman asked me what was happening. I turned around and saw a large group of black teenagers leaving our movie theater en masse. I looked at him puzzled and asked, “What do you mean ‘what’s happening?’” He said, “that mob over there.”

I smiled as kindly as I could and said, “It’s Saturday morning and those teenagers just left the movie theater.” One could see their terror turn to mortification as they realized their reactions and why.

Other readers admitted times they caught their own biases in action. For this woman, it happened while she was playing tennis with three friends:

We were the only people on the courts when we started. After about an hour or so, a young black male with a hoodie pulled up over his head wearing baggy sweat pants came to the tennis courts and started walking the perimeter just outside of the fence where we were playing.

Although I don’t live in the development where I was playing tennis, I know there aren’t many people of color who live there. There was an immediate tension and distraction among the tennis players, and though no one said anything out loud, all turned their attention towards the hooded interloper. What is he doing here? He doesn’t belong here. Is he here to hurt us? Steal from us? Break into our cars?

I can only imagine what was going through everyone’s heads, because, sadly, these questions were going through mine. You see, I am a black female.

The other three players on the court were white females. While I was able to quickly de-escalate my alarm because of my personal experience and who I am (He’s not doing anything but walking around, he may be new to the area and is just out exploring … ), I don’t think my tennis friends were able to get there quite that quickly.

Then I realized something: I wouldn’t have been uncomfortable at all if I wasn’t with my white friends. I was channeling their alarm in this situation. So, I started talking to them and getting everyone to focus on the tennis match and soon, everyone seemed to calm down. The black male was soon joined by three black young ladies, and after checking out the courts, they went to the playground area and sat around on the swings talking.

A retired English teacher, Jerry Wowk, shared an embarrassing moment in working with lower-level high-school students, which his school classified as “13s”:

One day I had booked my 13s into the computer lab, and about 10 minutes into the class, a social studies teacher came in with his class. Apparently we’d accidentally been double-booked into the same space. I recognized some of his students from my own higher-level classes. Being relatively new at the school and wanting to get along with everyone, I asked him if he was perhaps in a bind for lab time, as in my case it was just my 13s. He looked at me, and replied, “Just?” I never forgot that, right to the end of my career and in the decade-plus I’ve been retired.

I edited “Is This How Discrimination Ends?,” and the big question motivating the investigation was whether or not prejudice could be nipped at the bud before playing out in these different ways. The story profiles a team of researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, who are working on an approach to reducing bias. In the tech industry and other progressive fields, “unconscious-bias trainings” are already a fad—but unlike many of these trainings, the Madison team’s approach has produced scientific evidence that it actually works:

Many psychology experiments that try to change implicit bias treat it as something like blood pressure—a condition that can be adjusted, not a behavior to be overcome. The Madison approach aims to make unconscious patterns conscious and intentional. “The problem is big. It’s going to require a variety of different strategies,” Devine says. “But if people can address it within themselves, then I think it’s a start. If those individuals become part of institutions, they may carry messages forward.”

A handful of readers wrote to highlight other programs that they found effective in stomping out unintended prejudice. Lark Birdsong mentioned Jefferson Unitarian Church, a religious organization “steeped in programs for helping folks realize their bias.” And a few others pointed to a Brooklyn-based program called Be More America:

It was a six-week program that examined how biases are formed in the mind, and then taught the participants an array of mindfulness techniques (such as meditation and stereotype replacement) to become aware of and release the habits and predispositions they held with regards to race.

The impact of these training programs is incredibly difficult to study, so hopefully research can shed more light on what techniques are most effective. If you have a detailed story to share about a training that succeeded (or didn’t) in your workplace, let us know.