Bias is often viewed as something that only other people have. It is harder to find someone who will admit it to themselves. This is what struck me when I read Jessica Nordell's thoughtful book The End of Bias by American journalist Jessica Nordell. It was also the reason that I became absorbed in My Unorthodox Life, a reality TV show. Julia Haart is a New Yorker who, in her 40s, left an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community and transformed herself into a global fashion mogul. Her new life is extraordinary, but her reflections about her past are equally fascinating. Haart spent many decades questioning why her world is as it is and what role she played in creating it. She is comfortable walking in her Orthodox neighborhood today wearing a short-short and a low-cut shirt, regardless of what others may think. Others may find it more difficult to make the leap.
Haarts adult daughter, who had worn skirts in accordance with Haredi tradition, tells Haarts husband that she is nervous about her decision not to wear jeans for the first. Haarts reply was that it wasn't her business to choose what a woman wears. Her daughter patiently explained that if she had to change from the values she was raised with, it would be better to do so with the support of the man she loves, even if it means taking a bit longer.
This unusual mother-daughter relationship is explained in Nordell's book. The author points out that overcoming internalised bias does not require a flip of a mental switch. It is a process of continually questioning deeply held beliefs throughout your life. Even when done with intention, it can be difficult. We are all familiar with gender and ethnic pay gaps. There is also systemic and structural discrimination. Glass ceilings and sticky floors are just two examples of how people are disadvantageed by subtle biases. To grow up in a society means to accept its prejudices. We are all vulnerable.
Numerous books have been written about the many ways that prejudice manifests. Diversity training is a big business. However, it is still difficult to overcome bias. Although implicit or unconscious bias courses can be helpful, they don't explain the source of biases and they do not remove them. In some cases, they can make problems seem impossible to solve. Is there any way to fix things if everyone is biased? Nordell draws on the expertise of top psychologists such as Stanford's Jennifer Eberhardt (author of the excellent 2019 book Biased), and asks what a better approach might look.
What is the solution to bias training? Simple measures, although not revelatory, can be used to make things work. One tech company has removed personal identifiers in job applications. It is harder to discriminate against someone whose gender or race is not known.
It is possible to alter how people think and feel. However, hacks such as these are unlikely. Nordell explained that bias is a habit and can be overcome by examining your beliefs and actions. Nordell notes, for example, that she felt satisfied as a student because one of her science and math classes had few women. She realized that underneath her self-satisfaction was a set of unexamined negative beliefs about women's worthiness.
It is much easier to make this kind of change if you are not stressed. Mindfulness is a great tool. It is important to start young.
She adds that this type of mental transformation is easier when you aren't stressed. Mindfulness is a great tool. It is important to start young. Nordell tells the story of a Swedish preschool that changed its teaching methods after realising that teachers treated boys and girls differently. This in turn affected children's behavior towards one another. She writes that they let boys cry if they needed to and consoled them with the same tenderness as they showed towards the girls. Teachers began to use the gender-neutral Swedish pronoun hen, which flipped the gender of characters in stories. Children began to stereotype less about others as a result.
Nordell asks, "Who could we be without our denials and illusions?" Nordell's answer is a passionate statement: "We might all be free from our illusions and denials." But, what is missing is the uncomfortable recognition that many people with bias don't experience it unconsciously. For example, the Swedish school received hate mail because of its actions. Populist and nationalist movements all over the globe are influenced by overt prejudice. Particular targets are religious and sexual minorities as well as immigrants. Social media disinformation campaigns have effectively mobilized people's biases to support political goals through well-organized and coordinated efforts. It is not that bias happens against our will; rather, it appears that many people choose to experience it.
These are complex reasons. These beliefs are not always motivated by hatred. As often as not, it is because questioning our biases requires us to question other aspects of our identities or cultures in a way which makes us feel insecure. Haarts' daughter was not ashamed to wear jeans in public, but rather because her community had specific expectations about how she should dress. She was sensitive to this. She was not ready to accept it all.
How many of us can honestly look at our lives and see similar conflicts? While some feminists recognize that changing a woman's surname after marriage can be considered a concession to patriarchy they still choose to do so. Not because they are against colonialism but because it might hurt their pride, some Britons may be reluctant to admit the brutality and cruelty of empire. All of us are products of our culture. We dont float free. Our beliefs, values, and traditions are what anchor us to the world. They are also woven with the biases from the past.
Nordell had to face her demons. She was probably a slave owner on her mother's side. She writes that her family has suffered from this moral injury over the years, and she failed to face it. She says that mythologies and old, inherited reflexes have been repeated. She realizes that to challenge these feelings will require honesty, self-scrutiny and education, but above all, the willingness to take on this responsibility.