If My Unconscious Bias Is Always Present, Can I Trust Myself?

This blog was originally published on Medium. 

The following post is an amalgam of real life accounts of coaching sessions I have had with white women unpacking their unconscious bias and building deeper trust and collaboration with Black women in their workplace.

A coaching client, who is a white woman supervising a Black woman in the workplace, came to me for some guidance.

“Our relationship feels tense and I don’t know if it’s because of my unconscious bias around Black women or if our styles just clash? If it is unconscious bias, I am happy to work on that and try to change my perspective, but how am I supposed to know if it’s my bias or not, if it’s unconscious?”

This question has come up countless times in my coaching practice. White anti-racist clients saying things like:

  • “I want to work on my unconscious bias, and make it more conscious so I can change it.”

  • “I want to understand if a difficult feeling I am experiencing with a Black person is because of my unconscious bias.”

  • “Do I have a right to ask people of color to be self-reflective and consider the impact their behavior is having on me, or is that me centering myself without realizing it?”

  • “Do I just accept feedback from people of color about my approach without question, because it must be my unconscious bias?”

Under all these questions is one core question, I think: “As a white person raised in an unequal world in which my race is favored, can I trust myself?”

It’s unsettling not trusting your internal experience, but it is also a brave place. Anytime we step into the unknown, it requires courage, and that’s also where learning and healing can happen.

In response to this particular coaching client, I asked her; “What are the style differences you are noticing?”

“Well, I am a very introverted and methodical person. I like to create a plan and move in tandem with that plan to get things done. This particular direct report is very extroverted and more spontaneous and creative. She feels comfortable with plans changing and adapting as we go. She also likes to bring up a lot of different perspectives, which can feel like she is questioning my leadership. But maybe that is because I am uncomfortable with a Black woman voicing disagreement? Does she feel more “aggressive” to me because she is Black? Would I respond the same way to a white woman who shared her same style? How am I supposed to know?”

Here’s how I reframed the situation with her:

“You very well may have a style difference and those styles may be impacted by culture, class, education, personality and temperament. However, if/when you decide to talk about this with her, the fact that she is Black and you are white will be a factor regardless. She will likely be wondering; “Is my boss uncomfortable with my voicing a strong opinion because I am Black?” She will be wondering this because for hundreds of years, Black women have been told that their anger is unwelcome, that their intellect isn’t as valid, and that white women’s perspectives, learning styles, and choices are preferred. Even if you aren’t saying or meaning that — that’s the context that both of you find yourselves in. You will be (and already are) wondering, “Is my discomfort coming from unconscious bias?” because you know that you inhabit a privileged place in society that is only beginning to be collectively examined and recognized for what it is. The roles you both inhabit are the consequences of hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crow, and are inescapable.

Trying to play detective around whether you have unconscious bias or not, doesn’t change the context you are both in.”

Having realized that she isn’t to blame for this dilemma she is in, and that there is no blame to be assigned to her direct report either, but rather the reality of the racist system we live in, she is freed up to do her part in addressing the situation respectfully.

We practiced what she might say, and as per usual with my clients, she found she was more than capable and competent to get herself “unstuck” once given the opportunity to tap into her own abilities. She came up with the following response:

“Debra (name changed for anonymity) I’d like to check-in with you about our meetings and our communication. Sometimes during meetings, when you seem excited about a different course of action than we had previously plotted out, I can feel myself get tense. Diverting from plans is challenging for me. I am concerned my bringing this up could come across as silencing you, and I understand that our racial identities play into that dynamic, so I want to assure you, I do not want to silence you, and that I appreciate your perspectives and adaptability. I am curious how my style and approach may be landing for you too. I’d love to explore how we can work together so we can both contribute our best towards this project. How does that sound?”

This was a “practice run” so I don’t know yet if she tried this in real life or not, nor how it was received.

What do you think she did well in her response? How could it be improved?

Here are my thoughts on what she did well:

  • She was super brief and factual about the behavior from Debra she wanted to explore.
  • She owned her own reactions using “I” statements (she didn’t cast blame with “you made me feel…” statements).
  • She shared her intention and ended her note by asking permission to have this level of conversation.

Here’s where I am conflicted (and would love to hear your thoughts). While she recognized that their “respective racial identities play into the dynamic,” she didn’t explicitly name her whiteness, or the race of her direct report — should she have?

At Compasspoint Nonprofit Training Center, I teach a class called, Liberatory Principles and Practices for White Supervisors.” Myself, my white co-facilitator, and BIPOC trainers (who teach a version of this class for mixed race and a BIPOC only audience) have discussed this question quite a bit. We haven’t landed on a clear consensus, but lean more towards open ended questions allowing time and space to build trust.

What do you think of these approaches? Have you tried something different?