(Updated from 10/26/2018)
Your brain is an extraordinary organ, but it plays tricks on you.
Some experts assert that our brains haven’t evolved as fast as the world around us. Our brains still function like they did when we were at risk of being dinner for a wild animal. That’s still possible, but you’re not at significant risk of physical harm or death every time your amygdala is triggered.
Remember how your heart started racing when your boss or spouse asked to speak with you at the end of the day? Your brain sent a panic response and immediately started looking for ways to protect you. Later, you discovered they wanted to talk about your vacation. You were never at risk of losing a relationship you valued. You were not going to die. Whatever triggered your fear response was connected to a similar situation from your past. It otherwise had no relationship to your safety in that moment.
Maybe that wasn’t what triggered you. Maybe it was a more palpable threat. You were the only one riding in the subway car during the early morning hours. The train stopped, and one person entered the car you were in. You tried to be discreet, pretending to read email messages on your smartphone. Yet you watched every move that person made and kept notes about their physical features in case you needed to identify them in a police line-up.
The person sat in the corner seat half a car away. You watched to make sure they didn’t take anything out of their bag. Did they seem fidgety? Are they high? Or drunk? What was it they reached for?
Whew. A cell phone. Without a headset, but at least you can tell they are just playing a video game.
That was your brain at work, trying to keep you alive.
But what if that person didn’t sit down far from you? What if they chose the seat next to you? What if it had been a small woman versus a large man? Would apparent age have made a difference? Would the color of the person’s skin? Whether they had tattoos, piercings, or pink hair? What if the person looked to you like a man but was wearing a dress?
What does any of this have to do with your safety in a subway car? Probably not what you think. Although stereotypes have some basis in truth, the connections are often quite thin.
You can and absolutely must question your brain, especially when you are dealing with human beings. We are beautifully diverse and very unpredictable.
However, you shouldn’t be as unpredictable to yourself. You can learn how to recognize your tendencies, and I highly recommend you recognize the biased ones. I’m almost certain you do not want to act on beliefs you know are unfair. My brain does similar nonsensical things.
It’s not always fun, but when I work with clients to reveal their hidden biases, I have to explore my own. No matter how many times I remove one, it seems like another will appear, based on new information and experiences. This is a natural part of living for most humans. This is also why I ask you to make The Seven Choices before we start developing any action plans around diversity, equity, and inclusion:
- Forgive yourself for having conflicts, including implicit biases
- Acknowledge yourself for taking any action to resolve any conflict arising out of an implicit bias
- Forgive the world for having and creating conflicts
- Free the emotions
- Clear your mind
- Assume you know nothing about anything
- Listen with your third ear, or your h-EAR-t
You’ve heard this before. You must understand yourself first. You have to make sure your brain isn’t unfairly assessing people as threats based on irrelevant factors. Only after then do I recommend engaging with someone else about the painful issues DEI programs reveal. If you do, you might cause more harm.