Unconscious Bias / Privilege


Unconscious Bias and Privilege are things that are easy to claim we don’t have. Hence, unconscious is they key word in calling out things we are likely in denial of. Some time ago, I came up with two city bus metaphors that help us wake up. They seem to resonate with most people. This distinction has again become more impactful as a result of Covid-19 – See update below.

Unconscious Bias and Privilege exist whether we deny it or not. As leaders and role models, we can help course correct towards creating spaces, or through denial perpetuate these societal obstacles to empowering everyone to have a more balanced opportunity to achieve their potential.

Unconscious Bias - Privilege - Slow, Late or Crowded, Buses are the Jugular of the Bronx
Bronx bus from CityLimits.org – 2016.09.07

Unconscious Bias

Imagine you are getting on a city bus and you discover every open seat is next to a passenger that boarded earlier. If the passengers are a diverse mix, how likely is it that you will choose next to someone similar to you?


Now imagine you are sitting in the window seat of a city bus with an empty seat next to you. Imagine further all seats taken by a diverse set of passengers. Now, imagine another passenger similar to you gets on the bus. The same emotional, possibly subconscious thought process occurs as it did for you in the scenario above. They might be inclined to choose a seat next to someone similar to them. In what other situations might I or others be unconsciously inclined to sit next to, work with, select someone more similar to ourselves?

Now consider:

  • The 116th congress is 75% white and 77% male.
  • Fortune 500 boards seats are 77.5% male and 16.1% minorities.
  • The top 100 films worldwide last year were produced by 99% male directors, mostly white.
  • There are many, many more similar stats on imbalance in positions of power…
2018 Board Diversity Census of Women and Minorities on Fortune 500 Boards

If any of these people are looking to hire someone they will work with/sit next to, are they too not slightly inclined towards people similar to themselves?

My experience with unconscious bias and privilege

I am …

  • A white Anglo Saxon
  • Born in the U.S.
  • A U.S. citizen
  • Male
  • Born able-bodied, and able to see, hear and vocalize
  • Someone with two parents with college education
  • A sis-gender heterosexual

None of these things required any effort on my part. They make it very hard to appreciate or comprehend what it’s like to live without these personal traits. I would argue that each of the above gives me some advantage in our society over anyone that is missing even one of these things. This includes better odds of being chosen by someone with a similar background. All my life I’ve been aware through reminders from my parents and from just observing the realities we live in, that I have what feels like a very unfair advantage over the starting point for most other humans on this planet. Despite my being aware of it and feeling it’s not fair, it still comes to my advantage simply because that’s how our society operates. I don’t have to consciously take advantage of this for it to be of advantage to me.

Sidewalk Chicken

The next time you walk down a crowded sidewalk, pay attention who makes room for you and for whom you make room. “Sidewalk chicken” is something that has fascinated me from the first time I was in a crowded city as a child.

Unconscious bias and privilege plays out billions of times throughout crowded sidewalks all around the world. This summer in a crowded pedestrian zone in Barcelona, Our 13-year-old followed me as I walked into a sea of oncoming pedestrians where I demonstrated how I could alter the course of on-comers long before they reached me without ever making eye contact. People course-corrected to avoid a collision. They unconsciously changed course due to my trajectory and focus.

Sidewalk ninjaing through crowds has fascinated me since I was a small child. One interaction after another with often less than a second between them. There may have been a billion such interactions in my life that I walked into consciously to see what I could learn within a split second. When our youngest tried it, it didn’t go so well for her. Adults, especially men, were caught off guard by a girl that wasn’t getting out of their way. This made me appreciate that my saying you just need to be strong, assertive and move with direction and conviction comes from an ignorance of overlooking the advantage I have of being a white, able-bodied, male. Sure, there are bigger, younger, stronger white males out there, but I believe my years of practice in this game were also facilitated by my unfair advantage.

Unconscious Bias starts early

Below is a great example of unconscious gender bias present at an early age. We shouldn’t forget that Drs. Mamie and Kenneth Clark demonstrated a an early presence of racial bias by leveraging their famous “Doll Test” that may sadly still play out the similarly today.

Power Dynamics

Whether choosing whom to sit next to on a bus or make room for on a sidewalk, power dynamics are always at play. Acting on bias, manipulating, bullying, psychologically or physically abusing and being racist are all mechanisms which , conscious or not, establish or maintain an imbalance of power. If we don’t recognize that we all live somewhere along that spectrum, then we haven’t opened our eyes yet.

Covid-19 Update

Since first writing this last year, the world has seen an outbreak of Covid-19 play out disproportionately in favor of white, male privilege. The jobs the privileged find themselves in are more likely to be suitable to work from home. Those jobs are also more likely to provide an income that allows one to weather a storm, have a stockpile of necessities (rather than venturing out to buy them as needed). This can also result in being less likely to find ourselves on a crowded subway or bus like the one above. Privilege can also enable buying expensive masks and sanitizers. The privileged are also much more likely to have comprehensive health insurance. As a result, in the U.S. we see the pandemic very disproportionately impacting the underprivileged while the privileged minority set the rules, laws and guidelines we all are to adhere to.

Indirect age-adjustment has been used.
Source: APM Research Lab Get the data Created with Datawrapper

See Also for Covid-19 Update:

See also

Unconscious Bias and Privilege on City Sidewalks Everywhere

Sidewalk Chicken Update

After having experienced the dynamics of sidewalk chicken, Google led me to various things written about it in the context of bias. References to that are below. Later, I also came across and interesting write-up about choosing whom to sit next to: NCBI – Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience:

Introduction: Imagine stepping onto a crowded subway car, shopping bags in each hand, and finding two seats left, each next to a similarly dressed man: one white, the other black. Where would you sit? If you are white, choosing to sit next to the white passenger raises the concern that you will be seen as biased, while choosing to sit next to the black passenger raises the concern that you will be seen as—perhaps disingenuously—bowing to political correctness. 

National Center for Biotechnology Information Published online 2012 Mar 1.

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