Privilege, Subtle Bias and the Challenge of Transformation.

February 15, 2011

It was at the end of a long day that my client and I headed to the airport, hoping we might take an earlier flight home at the end of a several-city road trip. We marched up to the ticket counter and stood side by side. Peter, my client, and a shareholder at a major law firm was flying economy. As a not-very-frequent traveler, he did not have “elite” status on this airline. I, on the other hand, was a high-level elite flyer whose many hours in the air had earned me an automatic upgrade. The flight attendant took our ID and looked at Peter. “Sir,” he said, ”there is a seat available on an earlier flight. I think I can get you on if you’d like.” Not interested in alienating my client by protesting too much, but unwilling to let the odd inequity pass, I asked the ticket agent why I had not been given the opportunity. He seemed puzzled by his own actions and said, ”He just seemed to need to get home in a hurry.”

It is far from me to spot sexism lurking under every rock or bush. I am not quite a post-feminist woman, but one who has asserted myself sufficiently to believe that with some effort, women will get the same respect as men. Nevertheless, it was just weeks later when, on a flight to London, I decided a glass of wine would be nice. I walked back to the galley where the flight attendants were chatting and asked if I might have some wine. They refused, stating their paperwork was done and the beverages put away. I returned to my seat and mentioned to my (male) partner that I thought it was odd that the beverages had been put away mid flight. He excused himself and returned moments later with two wines and a great big grin. Needless to say, I was outraged. It was a second example in a very short time of the existence of male privilege.

Privilege is the invisible cloak that is worn by people who are treated with greater deference and respect than others based on their identity. It is the unconscious source of what is variously termed “Microaggression” or “Microinequity,”. When one has privilege, it does not mean one has asked for it. In fact, the challenge of raising the specter of privilege in the organizational world is that many who wear this invisible cloak would be offended at the prospect that they do! We may get glimpses of it, but privilege is hard to put our finger on. That I cash a check at my bank without being asked for ID is, for instance, simply a matter of fact. That the African American woman in front of me was asked for ID could be written off for any one of a number of reasons, the least of which might occur to me is that I was afforded a privilege she was not. The result, however, is that she likely has sufficient experience of being denied the privileges I am readily granted. While I proceed in my life considering myself inclusive and egalitarian, she feels the subtle, cumulative disrespect that defines micro-offenses.

In current racial dialogue, there is a form of individual racism termed “subtle bias” or “aversive racism” that compares starkly to “traditional” racism. People who engage in aversive racism are sympathetic to victims of past injustice, support the principle of racial equality, and regard themselves as non-prejudiced, but at the same time possess negative feelings about people of certain races, religions, or backgrounds. These two opposing sets lead to nondiscriminatory attitudes and behavior when there are strong social norms in place, but may result in discriminatory behavior when situations are vaguer or the normative structure is weak.

Jack Dividio, Phd and Samuel Gaertner, Phd are leading researchers on subtle bias. They found for instance, that in personnel or college admission selection decisions, White people do not discriminate on he basis of race when candidates have very strong or weak qualifications, but they do discriminate when the candidates have moderate qualifications and the appropriate decision is more ambiguous. In these circumstances those demonstrating aversive racism weigh the positive qualities of white applicants and the negative qualities of black applicants more heavily.

Putting these together, the combating of subtle bias is formidable; the display of micro insults by those in the “privileged” group is often inadvertent; interruptions, body movement, even subtleties of eye contact accompany the things that must be included. These accumulate and strongly affect the person who is experiencing, over time, what might be referred to as “death by a thousand cuts,” yet much of the subtle racism is perpetrated by well meaning, egalitarian people who would vehemently protest being labeled racist!

Let’s dig in even further. Imagine if I’d angrily confronted the teller at my bank, suggesting that she was being subtly discriminatory in her ID’ing of the African American woman when she did not check my identification. No doubt, she’d had a very good reason for checking that ID, and she would defend it. It could become a very hostile encounter. Therefore, I say nothing, the behavior continues, and I am complicit. If we take that simple encounter and we bring it to the workplace, where occurrences may happen frequently, we not only have the likelihood that the slights and micro insults would be taken more personally and painfully, but that bystanders of good will would be less likely to confront them, lest they be viewed as thin skinned or conflictual.

To combat subtle bias, we need to find a way to recognize our cloaks and to become mindful of the implicit messages we send and the ones we receive; to get to, as one analyst calls it, “the DNA of inter group relations,” by recognizing the privileges we may be granted and the slights we may overlook. We must avoid being annoyed at what may seem to be thin skinnedness when someone calls our attention to these slights– because their experience of them is far more important that our intention. More than that, we need to find ways to provide and receive feedback that is neither punitive nor destructive, but instructive and welcome. This flies in the fact of traditional status dynamics, where criticizing someone of greater rank is often hazardous to one’s health, but wise leaders will recognize that the feedback will help them to shape the culture of inclusion that most truly wish to foster.

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