experiments in unconscious bias: part II
A CEO shares his observations
by contributing author Suri Surinder
Co-Founder & CEO of CTR Factor
As part of an ongoing series of experiments in unconscious bias with myself as the subject, I had talked about wearing earrings in the first installment of the series, and the almost imperceptible impact it had on the behavior of others towards me.
Earrings on me, I discovered, sent an unintentional signal to many that I was a cool, easy going, blue collar party animal who might be fun to hang out with, far removed from the serious-minded, driven corporate executive that I have been for most of my adult life.
My next experiment was to drop my carefully cultivated imitation of a Midwestern accent, acquired by many hours of attempted imitation of Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw as they delivered network news in the mid 80s, around the time when I moved to the US from India for the first of my graduate degrees at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
Instead, I effortlessly slipped into the inimitable Indian lilt that came so naturally to me as a result of my formative 21 years growing up in the land of Slumdog Millionaire, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and Life of Pi.
This change, unlike the previous one with ear-rings, which skewed perceptions in one direction, polarized the people I interacted with into two directions.
The first segment was actually kinder and gentler with me than to my more Americanized alter ego, going out of their way to inform me on where the closest restaurant or restroom was, speaking slower than normal with me, and paying specially close attention to what I was saying. Some of them went beyond a helpful reactive posture to a more proactively inquisitive approach.
This sub segment was genuinely interested in where I came from and how I felt about being in the US. Most of this overall segment was comprised of women, and most of the women were baby boomers, as much as I could estimate their age without getting beaten up.
The second segment was almost the total opposite of the first one. They treated me worse than I am normally treated, with a barely concealed level of impatience and irritation when I asked them a question, answering in cryptic mumbles and grunts sometimes, and looking at me with simmering contempt and disdain as I moved away from them.
A couple of them muttered under their breath that I should learn to speak English better if I was in this country. In their defense, they thought I could not understand what they were saying, so they were not trying to be openly uncivil and discourteous. Most of this segment were men, and older, often with a twang in their own voices, though substantially different from mine.
We should be careful with this data. It is one person’s experience with a limited sample size, so it is not generalizable statistically. And it might be indicative of unconscious bias, but not necessarily of prejudice or discrimination, though it could degenerate and deteriorate into those spaces if left unchecked.
What is the fix? Awareness is a key starting point. Once our thinking surfaces to our conscious self, most of us will check ourselves. But if we allow ourselves to stay on autopilot in such encounters, our subconscious selves might lead us astray.
I'm in the middle of experiment #3 as I write this. Can’t wait to tell you about it. Tune in again in a couple of weeks.