Day 18: Is Unconscious Bias Lurking in Your Mind?

I’d like to share a lesson I learned from my very first job, in France. It is a lesson that taught me about integrity and bias, and about keeping a positive attitude and smile on my face in a difficult situation while treating people fairly.

I was a supermarket cashier, working for a large European grocery chain. My job was to assist customers and check them out. As part of my job, I often had to ask customers for ID. That was the procedure; I did it with every customer. Yet I remember one day when a lady became very upset with me for requesting her ID. She accused me of mistreating her and asking for the ID only because she was black.

I was totally stunned. Not because of what she was saying, but that she was accusing me. My dad is black, and, although I am clearly light-skinned, I never imagined someone would accuse me of being biased against a black person!

Emotions Managed

What I learned then, when I was 18, is that people have sometimes a defensive mindset. Sometimes we make assumptions where we think people will act the way we expect them to based on what we (think we) see.

And I also learned that emotions can be managed. I smiled, looked at her, and asked her, ”Who do you think my dad is, and where do you think I am coming from?”

She said, “I don’t care about whatever you are saying. I know that today you asked for my ID because of my color.”

I told her, “I don’t want to be disrespectful, but my dad is black.”

Then she looked at me and was really intrigued. At the same time, she also was very upset and had a hard time calming down. I understand her agitation if what she thought had happened actually did—if I had been prejudiced.

But that was not the case at all.

Seeing Beyond Bias to What Is Really Happening

The woman in my line had to really challenge herself to see what was actually happening.

I realized, too, that she had come to her assumptions about cashiers asking for her ID based on her life experiences and the environment she had lived in, which is totally understandable. I know many people of different backgrounds, religions, color and other appearances have been treated poorly in similar situations.

At some point, however, we all have to learn to challenge our beliefs and our assumptions. We must challenge our own, biased interpretations of a situation to make sure that we are truly accepting the current moment for what it is.

What a great learning situation. It was really uncomfortable for me because I didn’t know if I had actually done something wrong or said something that might have triggered this woman.

At the same time, I learned that assumptions and interpretations sometimes create conflicts or undesirable situations.

Another Lesson of Cultural Bias

How can we each take the opportunity  to really assess what’s going on, to put new lenses on instead of using the lenses of the defensive mode or aggressiveness?

I’m guilty of bias too. I noticed it when returning regularly to France to visit. We have a sort of pessimistic mindset in France where people will complain about many things and other people. In visiting from the US (where there is less of this attitude), I saw myself falling back into my culture of origin, back into this complaining mode. Complaining about people not smiling, about people not asking me how I was doing…

Finally I realized that I was biased. One time, I became aggressive and defensive with somebody based on a situation that happened to me in the past in France. I made the assumption that I would have the same experience, but it was not the same. I gained the gift of seeing my own distorted view.

Catch Yourself & Put on New Lenses

Happily, now, more and more, I can catch myself in my biases. Each time I go home I enjoy people so much, exactly as they are. Yes, some people complain, but more and more I see something other than whining.

Because of these experiences, I can erase the assumptions people have and the assumptions I have, to create a new experience. A more real, more positive experience.

And when you create experiences that are positive, what happens? You attract more of them!

I hope you enjoyed my story of learning as an 18-year-old about biases. I learned that we all have the opportunity in every experience to set our assumptions to the side and to re-examine the situation to see it in a new light.

Does this happen to you? Can you find biases in your life, perhaps lurking in your assumptions or past experiences?

If a situation of bias does happen, please just smile, catch yourself, and say, “OK, let me reset, change my lenses to new ones, and look again at this experience in a way that will be fulfilling for all the parties involved.”

After you practice this, it will come more easily until it comes automatically.

Have a great day!

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