Growing into Consciousness: 3 Takeaways from Arlington Diversity Task Group’s event on Unconscious Biais

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Christopher Dial

Christopher Dial, Research Associate at Harvard University Implicit Project, presented key results of his research during last month’s event “A look at Unconscious Bias”, hosted by the Arlington Diversity Task Group at Arlington’s Town Hall.

When preparing this event, several members of the diversity task group feared the presentation would be filled with psychological jargon. Instead, Dial put the public at ease by sharing personal experiences on unconscious bias.

We’re all biased

Christopher Dial
Christopher Dial talks on unconscious bias

I like to think that I don’t discriminate or stereotype people. The reality is that we all do. We make decisions that even go against our personal values and have significant impacts in our lives. During the talk, Dial timed how fast the audience associated male names to the career themed words and the female names to family themed words. He also measured how much time the public took to link the reverse semantic: male to family and and female to career. The audience, myself included, was puzzled to discover it took us longer to associate the latter. While I come from a lineage of women who lead ambitious careers and I am also a working mum, I struggled to match women with career words as fast as men. This exposes one of my unconscious biases. Beyond gender bias, Dial presented similar tests to unravel racial bias.

A recent podcast of the NPR show Hidden Brain looks into an experiment that Benjamin Edelman, Michael Luca, and Dan Svirsky, faculty members at Harvard Business School, ran on AirBnB. Titled “#AirbnbWhileBlack: How Hidden Bias Shapes The Sharing Economy”, the podcast explores how discrimination impacts the lives of African- American guests and hosts on AirBnB: Quirtina Crittenden, a young African- American would send room requests on AirBnB only to be denied repeatedly, until she replaced her profile picture with a city landscape and shortened her name to Tina on the online platform at which time her requests were suddenly all accepted. According to NPR, “in a separate study, Luca and his colleagues have found that guests discriminate, too, and black hosts earn less money on their properties on Airbnb.” They believe unconscious bias plays a role in this disparity.

Big and small, on local and global platforms, unconscious biases shape our behavior in surprising and ordinary ways

Big and small, on local and global platforms, unconscious biases shape our behavior in surprising and ordinary ways. The challenge lies in uncovering our unconscious biases.

Spot your unconscious bias

Unconscious Bias - Q&A
Q&A, “A Look at Unconscious Bias”

The Harvard University Implicit Project developed a series of Implicit Association Tests to help individuals reveal their own hidden behavior patterns and biases. While the audience collectively tested its gender bias during the presentation, Dial encouraged others to take the test online to discover more. The participant is invited to associate “concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy)” and explore attitudes on weight, age, religion, and other traits.

“One solution is to seek experiences that could reverse or undo the patterns that created the unwanted preference”

Good news, it is possible to get rid of bias you don’t want. “One solution is to seek experiences that could reverse or undo the patterns that created the unwanted preference,” said the researchers on the Implicit Project’s website. Dial presented the results of research in which children were asked to draw pictures of scientists. Most depicted personas similar to Professor Calculus in the Adventures of Tintin, a white male with round glasses, a distinctive hair style, and a long labcoat. When asked the same question after a visit to a scientific site, the children drew more diverse characters, including women in STEM with various skin tones, hair style and fashion acumen.

Continuing the conversation and building a path forward

During the Q&A, an audience member questioned Dial on appropriate answer to the recent racist and anti-semitic graffiti at Ottoson Middle School. While Dial praised the parents in the audience for addressing this incident, he encouraged them to discuss bias and utilize all the resources and literature available to them to foster change.

Many of the upcoming Arlington Diversity Task Group’s events are open to high school or middle school students and free for all.

Stories of Stigma
True Story Theater

The second edition of the True Story Theater workshops, “ Stories of Stigmas” will occur on Tuesday, May 10, from 7 to 8:45 PM at the Robbins Library Community Room. “Stories of Stigmas”, is a reprise of our January offering which was attended by 50 people. Participants are invited to share stories of feeling stigmatized or of stigmatizing others and experience True Story’s playback of their stories.  Middle and high school students welcome.

Our Wednesday,  May 18 “Meet Fannie Barrier Williams” at Robbins Library Community Room, 7 to 8:30 pm, is an engaging evening with a black woman activist who is visiting from the early 20th century. Dressed in late 1800s fashion, she will tell us about her life, using a modern Magic Lantern to show images from her times. While she experienced discrimination, she became a force for improving women’s and blacks’ rights. She’ll answer our questions about her life. High schoolers welcome.

On Wednesday, May 25,  “Being an active bystander  workshop” at Arlington Center for the Arts, 7 to 9 pm offers attendees an opportunity to practice ways to be an active bystander in situations where someone is being mistreated.   Note that we invite those who want to attend Bystander to register.  This does not commit a person to attend; it is a way True Story Theater can gauge how many troupe members to bring to the event as role players. Middle and high school students welcome.

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30% Discount with Arlington’s Book Rack: visit 13 Medford St. or email mbuglio@book-rack.com to order your book

Finally, as a follow-up to the Unconscious Bias presentation, First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington is hosting a book discussion co-sponsored by Arlington Diversity Task Group on “Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People” on Thursday, June 2, from 7:30 to 9:30 PM.  The authors Mahzarin Banaji, who manages Harvard University Implicit Project, and Anthony Greenwald, are both leading psychologists on unconscious bias. The discussion will be moderated by Esther Kingston-Mann, Professor of History and American Studies at University of Massachusetts Boston who created and taught courses on Race, Class and Gender, and led a successful student/faculty /staff initiative to establish a university-wide diversity requirement. High school students are encouraged to join.

Get Involved with us in the fall

This last event will close our 2015-2016 season of activities on community, awareness, and action around diversity in Arlington. Thanks to our members, volunteers and our 26 sponsors who made this event possible. Arlington Diversity Task Group’s work is not over, there is still so much to achieve. We hope you will spend the summer digesting and practicing what you have learned in the last few months and get involved with us in the fall.

Article by Yawa Degboe

Yawa Degboe is co-chair of the Arlington Diversity Task Groups and a Human Rights Commissioner. She lives in Arlington with her husband and her daughter.

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