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How to confront bias without alienating people

It’s about starting from a place of shared values, and understanding that bias is a human condition, rather than a character flaw.

How to confront bias without alienating people
[Image: Rawpixel/iStock]

Not too long ago, I was chatting with someone about what I thought would be a uncontentious discussion about my early childhood in Indonesia. Shortly after, it turned into a conversation about colonialism and Dutch occupation. This person had a Dutch family member who was born and spent his childhood in colonial Indonesia. Then she said something that made me pause. “You know, I always got the sense that the relationship between the Dutch and the Indonesians were very harmonious.”

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Without getting into Indonesian colonial history, let’s just say that statement ignores the numerous massacres and atrocities that took place during Dutch colonial rule. So it’s a pretty offensive thing to say, especially to a person of Indonesian descent. Still, in that moment, my aversion to conflict kicked in, and I quickly replied, “I think it was a very complicated relationship,” before changing the subject. Looking back, I regretted my response.

Confronting bias is a tricky thing. Had I responded with pointing out her ignorance, I know that she would have been defensive (and it would have ruined any future interaction I have with her). On the other hand, by ignoring the problematic nature of that statement (or glossing over it, as I did), I was letting her unconscious bias go unchecked. And those harmless statements and comments pile up to create the many forms of structural discrimination that we see today.

Why shaming doesn’t work

We might live in an age of moral outrage and virtue signaling, but plenty of research shows that calling someone racist, homophobic, sexist, or any other label does nothing to change people’s beliefs. This is because naming, shaming, or blaming people will “automatically put them in the defensive,” says Alexis McGill Johnson, the cofounder and executive director of Perception Institute–an institution that aims to turn research on race, gender, ethnic, and other identities to solutions that reduce bias and discrimination. “It creates the fight-or-flight mode.” In any situation, confronting bias requires you to start from a place “where most people are fair,” Johnson tells Fast Company, but that they haven’t been taught how to approach things in an inclusive way.

This is not surprising, but like many other people of color, I often struggle with calling out bias when I’m on the receiving end of it. The delicate dance between making my point and doing it in a way that doesn’t offend or put the other person on the defensive is extremely difficult to execute. And then I also have issues with the idea that I had to be the one who thought about it in the first place. After all, it shouldn’t be the job of minorities and marginalized communities to educate others about their blind spots, especially when they face enough additional emotional labor in their day-to-day lives.

But as I realized with that interaction, there are times when the opportunity cost of not confronting bias is too great. And as Johnson tells Fast Company, there are techniques I could have adopted that make these kinds of awkward and conversations less painful (and more productive) for everyone.

Confronting bias at work

According to Johnson, in most instances, people make biased statements at an unconscious level. When that happens in the workplace, it’s important to understand, first and foremost, the kind of culture that you’re dealing with. Is it the kind of workplace where people are comfortable calling out each other’s biases in a respectful way? Because if it’s not, then the responsibility is up to company leaders to create that kind of environment, Johnson stresses.

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Calling out a coworker and a manager definitely carry different risks, but Johnson says that you can employ the same technique. The most important thing is to evaluate the nature of your relationship with that person, and what you hope your ultimate goal to be. Say you are in a meeting and someone mentions that a particular woman is aggressive, and you feel like that person isn’t aware that their comments are rooted in gender stereotypes. The appropriate way to respond to that is “with specificity.” Ask them, “What do you think makes her aggressive? What did she say specifically that made you say that?” This will force the person who made the comment to give specific examples and think beyond stereotypes.

Johnson gives a personal example. As a black woman, a common comment she often receives is, “Oh, you’re so articulate.” She says, “Often what I’ve said to people, even if they’re clients, is, I’m not sure if you know the history of the word articulate. I know you mean that as a compliment, and I certainly hope that after years of training at Princeton and Yale, I can construct sentences together. But when you use that statement, there’s an assumption [that comes with it]. I’d love to share that with you.” Johnson goes on to say that when you’re approaching everything from a learning perspective, rather than an intent to shame, people are more likely to listen and be respectful.

Johnson acknowledges that it can be hard to do when you’re “managing up,” but good managers understand that emotional and psychological safety are two key components to productivity in the workplace. The key is to “describe the bias without attacking the person,” Johnson says, and with the mind-set that bias is a “human condition, rather than a personal flaw.”

Confronting bias with friends and family

Engaging in difficult conversation with family and friends also requires you to think about the nature of your relationship, and what you want to accomplish by calling out their bias. With family and friends, it’s likely that you have common ground on many issues, even when you disagree with each other. That way, when you start the dialogue, “you’re coming from a place of shared values,” says Johnson. The idea is to see the “biased statement as an opportunity to build a bridge, rather than to break it.” This requires asking them questions around why and how they came to the position they did, which creates opportunities for them to provide context and history. The important thing, Johnson says, is not to lecture them.

She also cautions trying to fight facts with facts–which many people have a strong urge to do when it comes to debating charged issues. “Facts don’t have the power, particularly when things are incredibly charged, around, say, issues of race,” Johnson says. Lennon Flowers, the founder of an organization that hosts dinners for people who have experienced significant loss, previously told Fast Company, “We shy away from our feelings–we want to stick with academic arguments and have the long set of bullet points that’s going to be what we use to sway the other person to think they’re wrong. No humans make decisions that way. We think we rationalize our way into decisions, but when you get into it, we make gut responses.”

Ultimately, Johnson believes that talking about bias and discrimination requires a commitment from both parties to provide a safe space for conversation. Both parties need to adopt the “failing fast” mind-set, Johnson says, because in these conversations, mistakes are inevitable. To move forward, we need to learn to have to “reset conversations so that people aren’t worried about being perceived as biased, but are instead focused on growing where the challenges might be.”

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Johnson goes on to say, “It’s the kind of mind-set and skill building and competency training that we need to do more of, as opposed to, ‘Oh my gosh, Aunt Martha said something crazy, let’s all ignore it.’ That’s not really helpful.” 

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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