Blog Post

How To Unlearn Racial Biases In Today’s Workplace

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

This article originally appeared on Forbes HR Council.

I’ve dedicated most of my career to helping people learn. I’ve taught as a middle and high school teacher and a university professor, and, today, I promote learning and development in the corporate world. In fact, even the company I work for is built on the foundation of learning.

This mission has always felt important and noble — and in many ways, it still is. But the global reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has been an important reminder of what’s equally important when it comes to personal development: unlearning. As a society, we have to reject and replace the biases that we’ve had, unconsciously or not, since childhood. For too long, individuals have failed to recognize these prejudices. This apathy has resulted in systemic racism and a lack of inclusivity in our governments, communities and workplaces.

Even at my company, a leader in learning and people development, we haven’t done enough to unlearn the biases we didn’t even realize we were learning over the years. And that could be because, simply put, it’s hard to do. It requires more than unconscious bias training or diversity and inclusion initiatives. Unlearning demands self-reflection and humility. We have to pull apart personal implicit biases, educate ourselves on why they are discriminatory and then dismantle them. Here’s a closer look at what this process of unlearning looks like.

Step One: Acknowledge Inherent Biases

Though research shows that diverse workforces are more innovative and successful than those with homogenous talent pools, only about 8% of people employed in white-collar professions are Black — a proportion that gets even smaller further up the corporate ladder. While many companies acknowledge the need for diversity, they haven’t done much to create it.

But that’s because most are starting in the wrong place. One of the reasons that majority-white companies often fail to hire Black people or people of color comes down to our inherent ingroup and outgroup biases. Though hard to admit, these biases do affect our worldview: As humans, we tend to favor individuals who look and act like us and associate with similar social groups. People and their decisions are constantly and unconsciously influenced by these perceptions.

But self-reflection can help employees unlearn these mental schemas. Research suggests that by becoming self-critical of potential biases, individuals can activate control mechanisms that help them inhibit those biases. One study found that forcing fellow ingroup members to rationalize and explain their personal biases helped them to recognize the inherent injustice of these thoughts.

Of course, this won’t be easy. Many employees will struggle to accept that they even contain these tendencies. For instance, a manager might realize that when they ask a Black female employee a question, they allot less time to answer it than they would her white male co-worker. Others may realize that they tend to prefer working with people who look and sound like them. In these moments, I urge others to analyze and deconstruct these findings. Ask yourself if this preference is due to merit or in-group biases. It’s likely the latter. This is an uncomfortable realization, but one that individuals need to get better at having.

Step Two: Start Listening And Learning

While building self-awareness is a noble first step, that alone is not enough. In order to unlearn racial biases and apathetic tendencies, people have to develop new ways of thinking about these issues. They have to learn about and listen to the perspectives of outgroup members, which, in this case, are Black people and people of color.

Employees can begin by self-educating. Read papers and books by Black social justice leaders. Follow BLM activists, or listen to podcasts that shed light on the Black experience in America.

In order to reach a broader section of a company, change has to happen from the top down; leaders must set an example. They should talk to diversity and inclusion experts and speak with Black people and people of color within their companies to learn more about what they can be doing to promote anti-racism. Leaders also must be willing to admit their mistakes: For instance, if your company has not diversified its talent pipeline as much as it could, own up to this. Unlearning happens when we recognize a deficit and look for ways to rectify it.

Step Three: Take Action

By developing an awareness of personal biases and being exposed to new perspectives and ways of thinking, individuals set themselves up to start taking meaningful action. By listening and learning about biased behavior, employees become more aware of it and can call it out when it occurs.

But making these kinds of meaningful changes won’t be effective if they come before the unlearning process, and I think this is where many companies fall short. Spurred by urgency from their employees and customers, companies quickly put policies in place without doing the hard work of unlearning first. For example, if an organization designs a new D&I initiative without first examining past mistakes or getting input from Black people and people of color within the company, the organization could get it wrong again. It could end up facilitating tokenism, or having one or two Black people or people of color amid a mostly white workforce. Tokenism implies a lack of inclusivity and can even be harmful to these employees, who are more likely to (paywall) experience depression and stress and tend to be less satisfied and committed to their jobs.

Unlearning is an ongoing process, not a short-term goal. Undoing centuries of systemic racism and inherent biases is going to take work, time and a growth mindset. We’ll need to continue unlearning biases and working to become more anti-racist, even when BLM isn’t making headlines or filling our Instagram feeds. We can’t settle, either: The only way to make the effects of this movement last and effect lasting change is through consistency and long-term commitment. And hopefully, if we start making a strong, concerted effort to unlearn our biases, we will see more equality and less systemic racism in our organizations.

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