Unconscious Bias Based on Race & Ethnicity

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you are interested in combatting microaggressions and unconscious bias, then it is important to address issues of race and ethnicity. This lesson discusses some causes and impacts of bias based on race and ethnicity.

Understanding Unconscious Bias

Julian has been working in the same office for six years now. He loves many things about his job, and he feels that he has many opportunities to put his talents to good use.

However, despite these positive feelings and experiences, Julian is often frustrated by the microaggressions, or subtle discriminatory acts, that he faces on his job.

Julian is an African American man, and microaggressions are not new to him at this company. What he struggles with, though, is the fact that many of his colleagues are overtly open-minded and even anti-racist. Why, then, are they so prone to committing microaggressions?

One of the reasons Julian is coming to better understand has to do with unconscious bias. An unconscious bias is a preconceived notion of a person or group that the bias-holder is unaware of.

Therefore, unconscious biases can affect our behavior and treatment of others quite profoundly, without our ever knowing we are participating in microaggressions.

Julian starts to learn more about unconscious bias and specifically how these kinds of biases relate to categories like race and ethnicity.

Addressing Race and Ethnicity

First, Julian realizes that he must understand what race and ethnicity actually are. Though Julian knows his own answer to questions about race on surveys, he often wonders what race really means.

The more he learns about it, the more Julian understands that race is a social construct that brings together skin color, heritage, and historical context and is often used to define a person's identity.

Ethnicity, on the other hand, is defined by cultural heritage. Therefore, a person might be white as their race, but Jewish or Polish as their ethnicity.

Julian understands that many people, including some of his colleagues, are uncomfortable talking about race and ethnicity directly. These can be loaded topics for many people, but not discussing them actually contributes to the perpetuation of unconscious bias.

Therefore, Julian understands that making sense of unconscious bias will involve overtly addressing issues of race and ethnicity.

Bias based on race and ethnicity can have a powerful impact on workplace morale and well being.

Julian also knows that race and ethnicity can be conflated with socioeconomic status in complicated ways. For instance, many people assume that because he is African American, he is also poor. A Jewish friend of his has explained that people assume he is rich, and good with money, because of his ethnicity.

Biases About Skill and Capacity

What are some of the unconscious biases that people face based on their race and ethnicity? Julian is very familiar with unconscious biases having to do with skills and capacities. These biases are stereotypes and generalizations that then transform into assumptions about all group members.

Some examples of biases around skill and capacity include:

  • African Americans are good at basketball.
  • Asian Americans are good at math.
  • Jewish people are good with money.
  • African Americans are not smart.
  • Latinx people are never punctual.

Though some biases about skill and capacity might initially seem positive, they can also lead to microaggressions. For instance, Julian hates it when people assume he is good at basketball because he knows this assumption has little to do with him as a whole and individual person.

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