Waking Up Unconscious Bias

Shocked, highly disturbed and frustrated barely scratch the surface of how I felt at the moment. I couldn’t believe my ears, but this wasn’t my first rodeo with this kind of experience.


 Some may not be familiar with this term, but many are familiar with the experience.

 Merriam Webster defines microaggressions as a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority). 

 Most of the time they are never meant to hurt or be offensive. Usually, they’re acts done with little conscious awareness of the meanings and effects. Yet the response created by these encounters is very conscious and the effects can accumulate and become very damaging.

 As a black woman working in a conservative corporate environment, I’m very familiar with microaggressions. McKinsey & Co in partnership with LeanIn.org recently released its 4th report on Women in the Workplace which highlights gender-based microaggressions. The report cited that 64% of women in the 2018 workforce are still exposed to this form of discrimination, with non-white women experiencing it more than anyone else. Last week I experienced one that prompted me to write this article.

 I was sitting across from one of the colleagues on my team, preparing to share part of her mid-year evaluation. We were having a very positive conversation and before transitioning to the topic at hand she wanted to share photos from a recent awards trip to the Dominican Republic. I was so excited to see photos that culminated a year-long accomplishment of our team’s focus, commitment and championship execution to be named the #1 district in our region. This was a well-deserved and long-awaited celebration. I’m very proud of their achievement!

 As I’m anxiously waiting while she swipes to the photos, she begins with sharing a favorite photo from the trip. This photo, she explained, represented her childlike joy and excitement as she held a pet monkey. There was a local that walked the beach and allowed tourists to take photos with his pet monkey. She shared the photo and it was postcard perfect! Beautiful blue sky, beach waves slightly blurred in the background, my colleague with a huge smile on her face and this pet monkey posing like he’s done this a time or two. Then she shares she was even more excited to take the picture with the monkey because… his name was Obama.


 I immediately stiffened in my seat, heartbeat began speeding up and felt my expression changing. “Swipe to the left for more photos!” she exclaimed. I saw more of my colleagues and tried to move the conversation. The entire time in my mind I’m weighing, “Did I hear her right? Do I say something? Do I let it go? Will she understand my perspective? Am I overreacting? Should I share how offensive this is or just leave it alone? How can she not know how offensive that is?”

 This is often the inner tug of war that happens when people experience a microaggression. You know (at least you assume) the person doesn’t mean anything by what was said. So, you’re assessing if it’s worth enlightening your colleague and risking offense or awkwardness. All the while you’re offended and they’re oblivious. It’s not a huge deal, but then again it is because it’s a result of the privilege to remain unaware, uninformed and unphased.

There’s often this fear, especially held by black women in corporate America, that if you speak up — to educate and not offend, enlighten and not create conflict — you will be typecast as a problem starter, angry, etc.

I sat there at that moment and thought if I didn’t share how offensive it is to some to entertain an owner with a pet monkey named Obama, I wouldn’t be serving her well as a manager that’s committed to helping people grow, elevate and achieve more. Part of elevating and leading others is having the emotional intelligence to cultivate inclusive environments for people to thrive. So, I tactfully shared that the photos were beautiful, the experienced looked exciting but having a pet monkey named Obama is offensive based on the historical context of how African Americans were called and compared to monkeys.

 As I finished explaining, I watched her process this perspective and she was appreciative that I shared as she hadn’t thought of it that way at all but could see how the naming of the pet could be derogatory and not a sign of admiration for our 44th president. 

 When moments like this happen, sometimes there’s this lingering question or thought that in 2019, with all the access to information and visibility of diverse cultures, is the bias UNconscious? How many of these instances are merely a result of implicit and not unconscious bias?

So what do we do in moments like this?

 Have you ever considered how you like to be awakened from your sleep? Nature sounds? A steady bell ringing? The sound of a steel pole banging against a tin trash can next to your ears? Most of us would prefer pleasant sounds, audible enough to wake us up from our sleep yet not so loud that it startles you to a frenzy. I believe this is how we must awaken unconscious bias — If we’re silent or too quiet we risk people remaining sleep. However, if the awakening is too aggressive, we undermine the opportunity to dialogue and reach a place of understanding. I also believe this is the responsibility of anyone witnessing unconscious bias, regardless of if you identify as the subject of the bias or not. 

 Here are some ways you can respond to initiate hard conversations when you’re experiencing a microaggression:

 1. Pick your battle — Every microaggression doesn’t necessarily need to be addressed. Also, keep in mind the place, timing and approach if you do decide to respond.

2. Seek to understand before trying to be understood — “What makes you think that? Can you help me understand why you have that opinion?” If you lead with the priority of understanding the other person’s point of view it will 1. Give you time to think past your emotions. 2. Allow you to respond in a more informed way to ensure you’re addressing the core issue — the behavior, not the person.

3. Sandwich the conversation — Start positive, have the crucial conversation, and end on a positive note. Ensure your colleague knows your intention to bring awareness to how their comment made you feel/can be perceived and thank them for allowing you two to have the conversation.

4. Use “I” statements (instead of “you…” statements) to address the behavior, not the person. For example you may say, “I felt hurt when you said …” In the Obama example I shared, I didn’t even lead with me because of my relationship with this colleague. I shared that “Based on the historical context of African Americans being compared with monkeys, that is very offensive and not a sign of admiration to name a pet monkey Obama.”

5. Have the conversation in person or on a video call at the very least. I’d think this is a no-brainer, but try to refrain from addressing a microaggression via text or email. Face to face gives you the opportunity to match your non-verbals with your message and assess the non-verbals of your colleague. Your non-verbal communication will be more important than the words you choose to use. 

 No one is immune from bias, and anyone can find themselves on the opposite end of a microaggression making an unintentional hurtful comment to someone else. So I’d love to hear your thoughts on these examples? What are some ways that you’ve awakened unconscious bias in a productive way? I believe this is the responsibility of each of us — regardless of demographic — to speak up, reach out and build inclusive work environments.

This experience made me glad I spoke up. I believe there is a time and place for everything and not every action is worth a reaction. However, I also hope this story sheds some light on these issues and the dire need for cultural awareness and sensitivity training in the workplace.

Let’s thrive, together!

Written by Brittany Cole

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