When people who are different from “our kind” join our ranks, we may get agitated or excited without being able to articulate quite why. We might say it is great to see a new face, but as the inclusion of others grow, we may experience “implicit bias” which is a bias of which we are unaware. In fact, we may be adamant that their ideas simply don’t work when it is actually their differentness that is the affront. While we all do this, without self-examination we are never able to fully embrace the idea of inclusion with full participation.
I remember hearing one of the most scholarly individuals I had ever known relay to me his personal and somewhat confidential thoughts about women entering his field of history back in the 1990’s. He wanted me to understand his point of view which was that these women were revising history which in his mind had been well established. The contrast of his complex mind with the irony of the contradiction in his thinking was a clear example of implicit bias at work. To be fair, he recommended women historians to me, but he clearly differentiated them from the feminist variety.
Another experience from the 90’s was going back home to the church I grew up in and learning they had decided to integrate and combine their church with a sister church downtown with a much different racial complement. I remember the Sunday I entered to a full house of worship with big colorful hats, lively prayer and music that was quite different from the usual somber choral pieces. The sermon was more like a responsive conversation with the congregation. I was stunned at the change! Then I saw that the collection was being taken up by the same people who had taken it since I was a child. I knew at that moment there was internal dissent. And there was. Long-time influential members wanted to know why we needed to change our ways when it was, after all, our church.
Why is inclusion with full participation important?
Why is it important for women to be the field of medicine? Or men in the field of nursing? Why are diverse cultures important in field of public safety? Or in the field of education? Moreover, why is it important to move beyond representation to a place where voices are heard and members have full participation?
Today we might ask, why are students important to the conversation about re-imagining education in the time of COVID? Student representation is likely to be found on many COVID committees to help steer thinking about the upcoming school year. But what if committees of students and faculty with full participation were tasked with re-designing the educational experience? Such a shift toward a process with full participation lends itself to greater perspective and a chance to make a real impact. [Here is a recent New Yorker article exploring this topic.]
When people who are “different” are treated as representatives instead of full members, their voice is less likely to be heard and they are less likely to be given the authority to influence process and outcomes. Indeed, if different ways of thinking and doing are sought, nothing will happen until different voices are brought into the conversation.
Engagement helps us make sense of other points of view
Another recent example comes with the news about a letter circulating inside the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from employees to the Director asking for racism and discrimination inside the organization to be addressed. We do not know all the facts, but as I read the story, my question is, what is at stake for this particular organization and our health? What does the following statement by a former CDC employee convey about the organization?
CDC has still not really come up with anything meaningful about what’s taking place in Black and brown communities around COVID-19. That to me is shameful, and shows that the scientists who are there who can do that work are not necessarily being empowered to do that work. [See article here. ]
If scientists who are capable of bringing attention to the needs of our most vulnerable communities are not given the voice or authority to do so, what is going on? Could it also be that the full extent of the work inside the organization has not been revealed and all voices inside the organization have not been heard, and if so, can the reasons for that be better understood?
Our implicit biases are fundamentally a failure to look beyond what we know and experience to examine a world from another point of view. Implicit bias is a trick of the mind which tries to tell us we are the only ones who know the way.
Implicit bias fools us into thinking that those outside our group are changing the “truth” when what may be offered to us is additional perspective and greater opportunity to make sense of the world. When we close off this opportunity, we create a structural failure to understand the world beyond our limited view.
Our willingness to acknowledge our collective implicit bias could have a tremendous impact on the world. The choice to examine our own ways of thinking and take an intentional step to include other perspectives could make a difference to those we serve in our particular capacity, whether it be members of the communities in which we live, customers of our products and services, audiences in political or entertainment venues, church members with a mission, citizens who pay taxes, constituents of elected offices, students at every stage of life and so many others who share our humanity.
We cannot rid ourselves of implicit bias, but we can intentionally change our group process and structure to include those we are trying to reach. We need to ask often and with intent, why is it important to be include other perspectives and what is at stake if we don’t? In the absence of self-examination, groups will merely go through the motions of inclusion without understanding the necessary work to bring about full participation.