What is unconscious bias?
A bias is an assumption in favour of or against one thing, person, or group compared to another. It is when we ‘pre’ judge in a way that’s usually unfair. An individual may hold a bias, and so can a group or institution. A bias can have negative or positive consequences.
Unconscious bias is when our feelings, thoughts, or behaviour towards another person or group of people is based on things like their:
- sexual orientation
- physical appearance
- physical abilities
We often do not realize we have this bias, and that is why it is called “unconscious bias.” It can show up in the way we treat or think about others. We can hold these biases in favour of people who are more similar to us and against those who are different. Sometimes an unconscious bias may cause us to act differently than what we believe is fair or ethical. For example, you may believe that people should be treated fairly and equally but may choose a close friend to join your sports club, even though they are less qualified than others who tried out. And you don’t realize that you have made the decision because of an unconscious bias, because you know your friend and think they are awesome.
An unconscious bias is not always bad or good. We use these preferences in our day to day life to make decisions quickly and process information. But, an unconscious bias can affect how we treat others. It’s important to remember that we have these biases and we need to consider the facts first.
Unconscious bias comes from:
- people you have met
- situations you have experienced in the past
- your own culture
- the way you were raised
- media you’ve seen and heard
What’s the difference between an unconscious bias and a stereotype?
An unconscious bias is a personal preference (a like or dislike) that you are unaware of. It is the tendency to take in information in a certain way. It is different than a stereotype.
A stereotype is when we make a generalization about a group of people based on shared characteristics. We think something like: “all those people are lazy (or smart, dishonest, stingy, musical, bad drivers.)”
A bias can develop into a stereotype, but not always. We may have a bias against people without being aware of it. Biases may start as harmless or even positive, but if we are unaware of our unconscious biases, they may develop into negative biases that may affect how we go about our daily lives and treat others in our schools, work or relationships. By being aware of our biases, we can ensure we are acting in a way that is true to our beliefs and morals and are treating everyone with the respect they deserve.
The following video helps explain bias and the difference between stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination and oppression:
What do I do about unconscious bias?
Recognizing your biases is lifelong work. You are constantly taking in new information about yourself and others, and your beliefs may change over time. Remember BIAS to help you recognize where you might need to be inclusive.
Be Mindful. You’re more likely to give in to your biases when you’re under pressure, so practice ways to reduce stress and increase mindfulness. Pause before you interact with someone from a group that is stereotyped so that you don’t just react with unconscious bias. Notice how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking about that person. See someone as they are, and not the characteristics you may be connecting with their group. Get to know them for who they are and not who you assume them to be. Pay attention to the words you use. Say something that welcomes others who are different from you instead of something like, “I don’t see colour.”
Check out our Mindfulness section for ways to practice mindfulness in your everyday life.
Increase your knowledge and understanding. Learn to look at life from the point of view of others and put yourself in their “shoes.” You can do this by reading or watching shows about their experiences. Consider positive examples of people from a stereotyped group, such as public figures or personal friends. Look for chances to interact with someone from those groups.
You can also control what you see on social media and what information you put out there. Take a look at media made by other cultures or by groups that support equality. It will help you gain a different perspective from mainstream media and the media you are familiar with.
Ask yourself questions about your own social circle to look for your own unconscious bias:
- Who is in my close circle of friends and family?
- Do I have any friends of a different gender?
- Are there any LGBTQ people in my close circle? Someone with different abilities? Folks with a different religious background or maybe not religious at all? Is anyone from another country?
- If I have a close friend from a different group, have I ever talked with them about how their identity has shaped their life experiences?
If your answer to any of these questions is “no”, then you might have a prejudice or “pre-judging” others without realizing it. Even if you’ve said ‘yes’ to any of these questions, you may still have negative biases about different identifying groups they belong to without knowing it. Be open to them if they ever want to talk about their perspectives, and do your own research to help address any biases you may have.
Speak Up and help to build a community that includes all people regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation, race, religion, accent, physical appearance or physical abilities. Become aware of bias around you. Work with trusted adults for change. Some things you can do are:
- Take a look at the images in your school or workplace. Do posters in your school only represent one ethnic group, body type, or gender? Bring this up with your school administration. See what steps you can take together to change this.
- Do you notice different treatment of friends, peers, or others? It may be an example of bias. You could speak to the individuals directly – they may be unaware of their own unconscious bias. Not sure how to bring it up? Check out our tips on how to start a conversation.
Addressing unconscious bias is lifelong work. It’s tough, but you’ve taken the first step by reading this article and making the effort to learn about your biases. A change in your community starts with a change in you, too. Be sure to take time to take care of yourself and know that this work doesn’t happen overnight. Remember that you are not alone in the fight for society to be more inclusive. When we take steps to educate ourselves, we help to build a safer community for us all.
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