Rice University professor addresses the unconscious bias

    Sometimes the smallest things have the biggest impact. Rice University professor Dr. Mikki Hebl challenged Northwestern staff and students to consider the effects of seemingly inconsequential bias during a presentation in Harris Hall Tuesday night.

    “Even good-intentioned people still show bias toward each other, toward others, and these are often manifested in subtle forms,” Hebl said. “There are some very subtle things that people are not aware of that are leaking out and showing biases.”

    Unconscious bias, or interpersonal discrimination, is a belief that unconsciously influences us to make a negative judgment on a person or group. The judgment can emerge as rudeness, reduced eye contact and short conversations, among other behaviors.

    While overt or formal forms of discrimination seldom surface in Hebl’s discrimination studies, the more subtle unconscious bias does quite often, and in many cases can cause more distress to individuals than outright bias.

    “If you have formal discrimination you can say, ‘I know that person is sexist’ and let it go,” Hebl said. “But if someone is rude to you, you might spend a lot of time and cognitive effort wondering, ‘Do they not like me?’ ‘Am I being discriminated against?’”

    Many people are affected by subtle bias in a variety of situations, from shopping to job interviews to social networking sites. Such biases can be based on any number of identifiers; gender, race, religion, sexuality and even weight.

    Weinberg sophomore Daniel Kinch said he appreciated hearing the different experiences of participants in Hebl’s studies.

    “As a white male, I don’t really face a lot of that sort of discrimination in my life, so I want to better understand what that experience is like,” Kinch said.

    With such a large number of potential outlets for discrimination, Weinberg senior Alexandra Becker said she was happy that Hebl addressed how unconscious bias can be combatted.

    “Acknowledgment was one of the things I found interesting,” Becker said. “To mention our differences to start with instead of trying to ignore them. That will actually create better relationships.”

    “Whether you are a target, ally or organization, do your part to stand up,” Hebl said.

    Recognizing bias, confronting stereotypes and demonstrating the importance of diversity were three common responses to fighting unconscious biases. Hebl encouraged audience members to uncover their “blind spots,” areas where their identity could hide potential negative judgments about others.

    Alecia Wartowski, the director of programs at the Women’s Center, said she was happy with the large turnout for the event. The Women’s Center brought Hebl to campus as part of their partnership with the One Book One Northwestern program.

    “At the Women’s Center, an essential part of our mission is to create a more inclusive environment, not only looking across gender but across all identities,” Wartowski said. “It’s a great privilege to be having these conversations around campus.”


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