I just moved into a new apartment. I love it. It's open, yet cozy. It's incredibly well-located. And it took me about 5 seconds to rent it...just like almost everything in my life. I didn't really have to struggle. My new landlord took one look at me and probably thought to himself, "She is the type of tenant I want to have in my building." I was only wearing jeans and a t-shirt and had my hair in a ponytail. I wasn't carrying a designer handbag or driving up in a fancy car. I just walked into the room and I gave the impression that I'd be a responsible, quiet (I'm not), clean tenant. Even when I told him I am self-employed or that it would take me a week to come up with the deposit money, he was sure. This happens to me all of the time...and I'm actually surprised when someone needs more information or rejects an application of mine (to a job, an apartment, a loan, etc). I've come to expect it. Almost feel entitled to it (even though I've done very little to warrant the impression). I walk into every situation relaxed and confident, thinking there is no way I'm going to lose this one.
I'm not an asshole. I'm not smarter. I'm not more qualified. I'm privileged.
Now, there are a few situations where I don't feel as relaxed and confident. Having experienced multiple roadblocks and rejections in those situations, I tend to approach these with a little more apprehension. Even defensiveness at times. Like speaking at a designers conference as a marketing professional (I learnt early on that designers and developers aren't always the biggest fans of marketing - think of my types as wasted space in a company). Or walking into a room full of technical guys (they pretty much instantly write me off as not knowing what I'm talking about regarding technology because I'm a marketer and a woman). Or talking to an investor about my startup (this one is 50/50 - some give me the benefit of doubt because I'm a woman and they want more in their portfolio, others dismiss me because I'm not an engineer...less about my gender, or so I think). I start to avoid those situations. Or walk into them with the wrong attitude. And I often lose these ones.
I'm not a loser. I'm not not hungry enough. I'm not less qualified. I'm disadvantaged.
Whether I'm privileged or disadvantaged, there are three things determining the outcome of the situation:
- The predisposed biases of the people making the judgment.
- My consciousness of the biases of the people making the judgment.
- How hard I want to work to change those biases.
In the cases where I am privileged, it is absolutely not in my favour to change the biases, right? I'm not going to say to the landlord, "You just met me. Just because I'm Caucasian, clean and past my 20's doesn't mean that I'm responsible." That would be stupid! It would be right. But it would be really dumb. So I take a look at #3 (changing the bias) and say, "Not at all. Let's keep this simple."
In the cases where I am disadvantaged, I need to work smart and diligently on #3...and not only for myself, but for others like me. If I was a black man in my early 20's looking at an apartment I want, I'd have to dress incredibly nice, provide a long list of references and then, as I lived in that apartment, keep nice and quiet, always pay my rent on time and never cause grief to my landlord so that it changes his biases (assuming he has them against young people and black people, of course).
As you may imagine, it takes much less energy to maintain privilege than to overcome biases. Going through life getting what you need without having to fight for it frees up all sorts of time and energy to think about all of the other cool stuff you can do. And it also gives you a leg up when you go to do it.
Of course, we have biases in order to survive. Biases originate in the hippocampus region (correct me if I'm wrong) where we learn to classify dangerous and safe situations. A tiger running towards us bearing his teeth may just be looking for a hug and a pet, but our brain won't let us hang around to find out if this tiger is the exception. Lots of people who think they are going 'on gut reaction' to make relationship choices ("do I trust this person or not?") are actually using emotional experience - either personal or anecdotal - to make those snap decisions.
The landlord who rents to me based on one meeting may have a generally positive history of renting to 30-something white women, so he is biased positively towards me. In general, these snap decisions work out well. In my landlord's case, I may like loud music, but I take great pride in my place and have never bounced a rent check (and don't plan to going forward). But even if I was an awful tenant, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't hurt the bias. Unless 30-something white women were to bounce rent checks in droves, I will maintain this privilege.
Biases that disadvantage are incredibly negative. They not only have the tendency to disadvantage really great people, but they also create justifications towards biases. Never underestimate the power of suggestion. Someone being told they are untrustworthy all of their lives may start to believe it, and when they are told they are untrustworthy and then roadblocked from being able to merely survive, they will probably start to act out.
Which brings me to the story of how I got into marketing. Stay with me.
In 1996 I started university. I entered into the Computer Science department. My parents were awesome and encouraged it. I had always been good with computers and an excellent math student. I had never heard that girls were bad at math. I had never been told computers were for nerds. My first class shocked me. I walked into an auditorium filled with 90 students. I was one of two girls. TWO. Not only that, but when it came time for labs, it seemed that I was always struggling to find a lab partner. None of the guys in the class wanted to be paired with a woman. When I approached a professor for help because I was starting to struggle, he said, "Maybe computer science isn't for you. It involves a lot of math." I told him I knew that, but I was good at math. He asked how my Linear Algebra class was going. Truth is, I was struggling there, too. Very quickly I felt like I didn't belong. But in my cultural studies classes, I was thriving. I loved the challenging discussions and nobody made me feel like I didn't belong. I threw more energy into them and started failing my Computer Science and Math courses.
At the end of year one, I transferred to the Communications and Culture department to pursue a Liberal Arts degree. I'll never regret that education, but I do regret giving up on Computer Science so quickly. Especially after I read the stats regarding the decline of women with degrees in that area.
Anyway, my point is that bias, though it helps us sort through the world more efficiently, is reinforcing. Bias is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When someone with privilege screws up, they are the 'exception', when someone with disadvantage screws up, they are just reinforcing the bias - whether the statistics back it up or not. And it's culturally taught, experientially reinforced and vicious cycle driven into our lizard brains.
All I ask is for us to question our assumptions about people and examine our own biases daily. Because then, I'm pretty sure we'd stop needing to have these kinds of discussions and start working towards really great progress.
At least once per day, take a look at a complete stranger (whether on the train, in the grocery store, walking down the street, entering a building, eating lunch, etc.) and take note of your assumptions of that person just by looking at him/her for 5 seconds. Then step back and unpack those assumptions - think about why you had them. Did you have previous experiences with someone like this that coloured your impression? Perhaps your bias came from cultural stereotypes or images? Movies? News stories? Now invent a new 'story'...or better yet...if you are lucky enough to get the chance, strike up a conversation and find out a little more about that person. See how your assumptions stack up.