Get Tough, Recognize and Respond to Personal and Systemic Bias

By: | March 20, 2017

In the Age of MultiDentity get ready to accept personal responsibility for preparing for the possibility that others will react negatively to their identity or question the legitimacy of their seat at the table. Today you have to accept that you can’t depend on any aspect of society to rescue you from harm. How you choose to respond to intolerance is crucial to your success in today’s world, particularly when you’re denied opportunities that you’re eligible for and qualified to pursue, or if others are actively working against your identity group’s efforts to gain greater civil rights. You need to be well prepared to deal with stakeholders who will interact with you based on any of the following mindsets:

  • Ignorance or lack of awareness of your identity group(s), causing them to feel anxious and awkward around you
  • Disapproval or bias toward you, which they hide to avoid negative repercussions at work or within the community
  • Superiority, discounting and denigrating you and members of your group as inferior.

The more centrally you define specific identity dimensions as part of your core identity, the more vulnerable and at risk you may feel when you come up against these mindsets while at work or in the community.

Day-to-Day Types of Personal and Systemic Intolerance

The two types of prejudice you could face at work and in the community are personal intolerance and systemic intolerance. Personal intolerance, or bias, usually happens when people you’re interacting with do something that shows their personal bigotry. Examples include:

  • Overlooking you in a line where you’ve been patiently waiting your turn to be served
  • Cutting you off at a meeting and not letting you make your point
  • Asking if “you’re really” booked in first class or if you should be standing in the Premier customers’ line based on your appearance
  • Looking around for someone else to help them or asking to be reseated in another section of a restaurant because they’re uncomfortable being served by you
  • Rating you lower on an appraisal or avoiding giving you feedback because of bias toward you and your identity group.

Systemic intolerance happens when you collide with laws, rules, policies, or systems designed to institutionalize negative outcomes for some people based on some dimension of their identity. Some examples are:

  • Paying more for credit than members of other identity groups
  • Getting paid less than others for the same job
  • Lack of accessibility for disabled persons in a public facility
  • English-only forms and instructions related to work or to receiving community services
  • Being denied an apartment, even though you’re qualified
  • Receiving unfair treatment by the criminal justice system

Recognizing which of these two types of bias you’re facing is important for two reasons: It will help you choose the best response strategy, and you won’t waste time and energy confronting the wrong people or the wrong part of the system that you should responsible for treating you unfairly. For example, suppose someone is dutifully implementing a policy they were told to follow and that policy adversely affects you. Where should you focus your energy when responding? It’s the policy, not the person implementing it, that’s responsible for the bias. But if the individual implementing the biased policy is disrespectful to you, then it’s both personal and systemic bias operating together. You might give the person direct feedback immediately, and confront the biased system later. Learning to recognize and respond to personal and systemic bias is a skill everyone needs.

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