I drove across country last week and listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink on the way, my second read of this fascinating book.  If you haven’t read it yourself, the term “blink” refers to rapid cognition or “thin-slicing”; in other words, decisions made in the blink of an eye based on a very thin slice of experience.  Gladwell talks about many different types and consequences of rapid cognition, and two of his more interesting points are that:

  • Sometimes it is a gut reaction of a highly trained expert in a certain field, and further thought might lead to “paralysis by analysis,” the destroying of the truth of intuition.  So we should trust it.
  • Other times it’s a gut reaction caused by unconscious or subconscious bias.  So we should not trust it.

The questions naturally arises, how do you tell the difference?  And what do you do about it?

Gladwell talks at length about the IAT, a standardized test that measures unconscious racial bias.  He and other people of color have taken it and shown measurable indications of racial bias themselves.  But Gladwell says with repeated test-taking, he has been able to lower his score over time.

Most diversity awareness trainers talk about the conditioning that happens during our childhoods and how it results in unconscious biases of various sorts for all of us.  The theory is that by bringing these biases to the surface, we can choose our behavior and ensure that it is not influenced by the  bias.  But Gladwell’s observations call that notion into question; apparently, it takes a lot more than just a little classroom consciousness-raising to influence our decision-making process and thus our behavior.  It’s a scary thought, especially when underscored by Gladwell’s tale of a black man shot and killed by NY police officers who acted on intuition, clearly influenced by unconscious bias or stereotyping.

But how do you take a deeper dive within the time restraints of an awareness class?  You can’t practice an IAT over and over.  You can’t cram years worth of conscious resistance into a one or two day class. 

I do think we can treat the subject with the seriousness it deserves, however.  We can use examples like Gladwell’s police shooting, instead of the harmless little anecdotes I often tell about my struggle to overcome tattoo-and-piercing bias, or my humorous stories about skier vs. snowboarder bias at ski resorts.  Those stories may make the point in a way that doesn’t inflame the discussion or make anyone in class uncomfortable, but they don’t make the point that our struggle to overcome bias is a serious and important endeavor with potentially deadly consequences for those who don’t work at it. 

For those of you who do diversity awareness classes, what kind of approach do you take to talking about unconscious bias?

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