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Through Children’s Eyes—What We Can Learn About Unconscious Bias

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Sometimes the best lessons we can learn about how to make our offices more inclusive of others, is to look outside of the office. I think this point is especially true when we look at unconscious bias, and how easy it is to spot in society. It’s so prominent, and yet, because it’s so common, sometimes we miss it. We forget to look for the signs because it’s simply how something has always been.  

Occasionally, an event occurs when unconscious bias—and the status quo—are called into question, and when that happens, we should listen. Such is the case of the McKinney Pool Party incident that took place in Texas recently. Jenée Desmond-Harris’ article, “The only good news about the McKinney pool party is the white kids’ response to racism,” describes the seemingly unwarranted behavior of police officers toward black teens.

What’s notable about the situation is the commentary from two white teenagers who witnessed the event. One teen, Brandon Brooks, 15, filmed the scene and uploaded the video to YouTube. In an interview with BuzzFeed, Brandon says: “Everyone who was getting put on the ground was black, Mexican, Arabic. [The cop] didn’t even look at me. It was kind of like I was invisible.”

Another brave teen, Grace Stone, 14, said in an interview that she and her friends overheard the discussion between older, white adults that started the whole incident. Both Stone and Brooks took a stand in their interviews by pointing out their perceptions of just how wrong this treatment was.

An interesting phenomenon that can occur with unconscious bias, and which this situation illustrates, is the idea that when a minority group cries out that they’re experiencing discrimination or harassment, people don’t seem to pay attention. However, when someone from the majority group points out discrimination/bias toward people in the minority group, everyone listens.

This is exactly what happened in the event of this pool-party-gone-wrong. Had black individuals spoken out about this mistreatment, many might have looked the other way. But, because two white people—and white teenagers at that—pointed out the unfairness of the situation, everyone decided to listen.

But bias shouldn’t prompt outrage simply because members of the majority group call foul! We need to all train ourselves to make sure that we’re listening to all inputs and insights, regardless of where they come from and especially if they’re coming from a minority group.  This is as true in the workplace as it is, in this case, at a pool.

This is a compelling wake-up call for all of us. Inclusive leaders need to be alert to the damage inherent in unconscious bias, as well as the tendency for all of us to fall prey to it. Keep in mind that unconscious bias also isn’t just an issue of race. Women in your office may feel that their input is valued less than men in meetings. Staff members with disabilities may feel marginalized. Employees from different generations may feel they are being treated differently than others. Introverts may feel they are being judged as inferior to, or less prepared than, their extroverted colleagues.

If you’re a male leader, you should take a female employee’s concerns seriously, even if you don’t see her point because you don’t experience the bias shown to her. It’s the same if you’re a white supervisor listening to the concerns of a black employee—just because you don’t experience the same biases this employee has, that doesn’t mean his or her concerns aren’t valid.

The road to becoming an inclusive leader starts here—be aware of unconscious bias. Be inclusive!

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