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The cost of saying nothing

We spend some time in our unconscious bias workshops talking about action. Once you learn you have biases and the negative impact they have, what can you do to make things better? One important skill we focus on is what to do when you observe bias in other people. We talk about “interrupting” bias rather than eliminating it, because sometimes all it takes is a change in the tone or direction of a conversation for a person to see their own bias, or for others to find an opening to correct a statement.


But even with the limited goal of “interruption,” it’s not easy. Speaking up requires courage, because it feels like a social risk. Many people fear that there may be a cost to interrupting bias, particularly in the workplace. Many fear being seen as “overly sensitive,” lacking a sense of humor, or too strident. Some fear backlash and job-related repercussions.


There is also a cost to saying nothing. Not just a cost to the people affected by bias, but to yourself. It is the times I’ve stayed silent that tend to haunt me.


One occasion occurred as I arrived at a conference, pre- pandemic. I took a taxi to the university where it was being held, driven by a friendly driver. He pulled up to the front of the building and helped with my luggage. As I thanked him, a student who was working the registration table stepped out and started yelling at the driver. “You know you can’t park there!” he barked. “Move your car!”


I was really shocked. I stopped for a second and looked at the driver. He lowered his head and said, “Okay, okay,” quickly returned to the car and drove off.


I looked back at the student, who was racing back inside to the sign-in table. His harsh attitude was so unnecessary. It was not a busy area, and there were no other cars. Why treat him so rudely? Would he have said the same to a professor or a parent? Could the reaction be connected to something about the driver—was it a class or status thing? Or some other bias?


I had a second to intervene. But I couldn’t formulate something to say.


Then the moment passed and he was inside.


Why didn’t I say something?


I even had another chance when I reached the registration table. I saw the student a few feet away as I gave my name to someone else. I could have gotten his attention, or stepped over to him to call him in. But I told myself that the moment had passed.


This was maybe eight years ago, and yet I still remember the incident with regret. After all this time, I replay it sometimes. I could have used any of the tools we use in our workshops. Ask a clarifying question: “Is his taxi in anyone’s way?” Or just an honest reaction: “He’s not blocking anyone. Why are you being so rude?” As a conference guest, I was in a position of privilege, and I could have used that to signal that the behavior was not appropriate.


Instead, I stayed silent. The cost is the regret that continues to play loudly in my head.


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