Bias matters in unpredictable ways
We don’t always know the long-term implications of the biases we hold, or if and when they will become a big deal. I still remember the moment I acknowledged that I might have some unconscious biases toward what we then referred to as the gay community.
I was participating in a mandatory, two-day, diversity program for new employees at Lotus Corporation back in 1994. I had recently joined as an Assistant Corporate Counsel. The first day of the workshop focused on race and gender. That was fun for me; I thoroughly enjoyed the exercises and discussion. On the second day, Lotus’ PRIDE group led the discussion. I can’t remember exactly how it happened; they might have been challenging us about our biases. Pretty sure I said something like, “I’m not biased, I treat everyone the same”—a sentiment that makes me cringe today.
They pressed a little more and someone asked me if I would hire a gay man to be a nanny for my infant son. I remember feeling that one in my gut rather than thinking about it in my head. I knew the answer was no and I also knew that my reaction was illogical.
I wasn’t causing anyone direct harm, or making homophobic comments or even having homophobic thoughts but their questions did cause me to reflect and question whether I harbored any unconscious biases. At that time, I didn’t have close relationships with anyone who openly identified as LGBTQ+; that in itself was a sign.
And, I was probably in denial about the negative associations I had absorbed, mostly about gay men, while growing up in the homophobic culture of 1970s Jamaica. I would have been in denial because no one in my immediate family would have made homophobic comments but the society in general was rife with it and as children we pick up all sorts of messages.
As with the tattoo bias I shared last week, I wanted to get rid of this bias. I don’t know how conscious it was, but I began to broaden my professional and personal circles. I met and got to know gay colleagues, landladies, friends. I am pretty sure I read some books to increase my awareness—that’s usually my go-to when I don’t know something or I’m uncomfortable. I was investing in an open mind, rooting out a bias I did not want to have.
I had no idea just how important it would be to deal with my stuff back then. My daughter was born a year after that diversity program. Cut to 17 years later: my daughter walked into the kitchen and said, “I have to tell you something. I’m bi.” [I have my daughter’s permission to share her story.]
Now, I can’t say that I did everything right as a parent (do we ever?). But I know it would have been worse if I had been the 1994 version of myself. I was grateful that she was comfortable sharing this important part of who she is with me. And I was relieved that I started attending to this particular bias so many years before. The stakes were higher than I could have imagined during that workshop.