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Cuban-American executive coach Margarita Sarmiento knows a thing or two about unconscious bias—not only professionally but very personally, as well.
“When they meet me for the first time or hear of my birthplace for the first time,” the ITK Consultants principal says, “many people say, ‘But you don’t look Cuban!’ That’s their unconscious bias: they have an idea of what a Cuban looks like, and I don’t fit that.”
Given our country’s—and our community’s—current situation of grappling with systemic racism, we sat down with Margarita to talk about how our unconscious biases shape our individual, organizational, cultural and systemic norms—and how we can confront those realities and change them, if necessary.
What is unconscious bias? How does it develop?
We all have unconscious biases; our brain is wired to label and box things, people, experiences, everything to make navigating through life possible. It’s hardwired and even part of our survival instinct: “’I’ve seen that animal with sharp teeth before; I know what to do: run!’ has become ‘I’ve seen a hot stove before; I know what to do: don’t touch.’” As a modern human, you experience unconscious bias as that recorded tape that you hear in your head all the time, the one that tells you how the world is and how to act.
Unconscious bias is passive; we absorb the biases from our environment—from family, friends, colleagues we surround ourselves with—and institutions—culture, school, faith communities. We don’t realize we have them until they get challenged.
For example, one of my own unconscious biases I absorbed from my culture and my family was that Hispanic women wait on men. My mom waits on my dad, my aunts wait on their husbands, and I was raised to wait on my brother. Unconscious bias tells you this is how the world is and this is how you should act in it.
What are a few good signs we have unconscious bias—or are operating with unconscious bias?
Oh, we’re all working from the Cycle of Unconscious Bias©: Our thoughts influence our beliefs, which influence our actions, and our actions dictate outcomes.
Biases impact our belief system, and that’s where prejudice comes in. Prejudice is prejudgment, not racism. Think about your mental boxes and labels. When someone says to me, “You don’t look Cuban,” they have a prejudice—a prejudgment—about what a Cuban looks like, and I don’t fit that.
Prejudice is not bad in and of itself; it’s when it’s acted on that it can get us in trouble. Then the outcome is discrimination, which includes all the -isms: sexism, racism, etc.
For example, if I have a belief that women can’t perform as well in STEM jobs and therefore refuse to interview or hire women for a STEM job in my company, that’s discrimination (sexism).
How we can work to operate without unconscious bias?
Any step of the cycle of unconscious biascan be interrupted by making it conscious. Stop and question the tape in your head, the beliefs you hold, the actions you take and the outcomes you create. Then you’re operating in the Cycle of Consciousness©.
In this cycle, we move from the center, awareness, which is “Wow. I didn’t know.” Awareness is not agreement or disagreement; you’ve just come to some knowledge of it. Example: Americans are achieving awareness of systemic violence toward people of color.
Then we want to move to understanding, seeking out more information: Is this new—or just new to me? What does this systemic violence look like? How prevalent is this? You may read or watch documentaries.
If we decide to take action, we move into alliance; we stand with those that are targeted, offering support while others are doing most of the work, like passing out water bottles at a march. In advocacy, you take a stand for the targeted group, even when they’re not there. You’re being pre-emptive. These are the protesters and marchers.
A change agent affects outcomes and influences system change like policy and procedures.
We have to give people permission to be at awareness, and we can’t expect someone at awareness to march with you or wear a BLM shirt. You have to let people move through the spectrum of consciousness in their head and in their own time. We need to hold ourselves accountable to keep moving forward, and those of us in the non-targeted group reach back to help others on their journey.
What are three tips for short-circuiting our unconscious bias?
Don’t take everything at face value. Question things. One of the biggest place unconscious bias is formed today is social media. Think of someone who sees an article on their social feed, reads the headline and thinks, “yep! I agree with that” and shares without even reading the article.
Take a look at your circles, those you trust, those you surround yourself with and go to for financial advice, relationship advice, etc. Are they different from you in any way? Culturally, racially, socioeconomically, politically, philosophically, in faith, in life experience? Surround yourself with people who think differently than you do and listen to them.
If you’re uncomfortable about a situation, a thought, a belief or an action, stop and recognize that. Then learn more, seek out different perspectives. Allow yourself to be uncomfortable.
How does unconscious bias feed into what’s happening in the country right now—the discussion and protests around systemic racism?
Our bias, or our tendency to see the world through a lens that favors our own reality, will always shape what we see. In other words, my reality is not your reality.
As we go through life understanding different realities, our own perspectives and opinions change.
We don’t recognize unconscious bias until it’s challenged: and our individual, organizational and systemic unconscious biases are being challenged in big ways right now. None of us see the world the same way we saw it last year or even last month. Our beliefs grow and change as we see that shared experiences do not always translate into shared outcomes.
It’s very uncomfortable to see what has been allowed to happen around us; it’s not been in our day-to-day purview. Now that it is, as individuals and as a country, the happenings of the past few weeks have accelerated the need for us to challenge our perception and biases, and we’re moving through the Cycle of Consciousness. The need for us to come closer together in our perceived realities is strong.
It is crucial that we make a conscious effort to come together, seek out others with different perspectives and experiences, ask hard questions and listen. These conversations can be uncomfortable and difficult to have because they often have more to do with emotion than fact and challenge our perceived reality. As we address topics of race, equality, justice, police brutality and other hard issues, discussions become especially difficult. Vulnerability and fear mix with anxiety, shame and anger. We need to be willing to take the first step, so these difficult conversations can become easier and we can begin moving toward long-lasting and impactful change.
But we have to let people move through the cycle in their own head and heart. You can’t expect someone in the awareness stage to wear a Black Lives Matter shirt. And not every person will reach the change agent stage—though if enough of us do we can get to a tipping point—but we won’t all get there at the same instant.
But if people and organizations don’t back up words with actions, we’ll never make change happen.
Margarita Sarmiento is an award-winning, international trainer & speaker, certified leadership coach, and author. Three major career shifts as a result of reorganizations and lay-offs gave rise to more than 30 years of management and training experience in both the corporate and not-for-profit sectors. These life changes have provided the unique ability to intuitively connect with people by sharing her expertise through personal stories and hands-on knowledge.
After one of these pivots, Margarita found she was providing training and coaching to friends and colleagues. At their encouragement she made the decision to branch out on her own, establishing ITK Consultants. Now, almost 15 years later, she continues to design and deliver customized programs, giving her a chance to utilize her communications degree and influence positive change.
Margarita is a native of Cuba, a naturalized citizen of the United States and an admirer of different cultures, traditions and perspectives. She loves her crazy Cuban-American family and may be guilty of highlighting them in some of her stories.
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