The U.C.L.A. Uproar: Don’t Kid Yourself–We all Have Biases

The New York Times reported today on the troubling case of the U.C.L.A. Student Council. A Jewish student at U.C.L.A., Rachel Beyda, was being interviewed for possible membership in the council. According to the Times, the first question she was asked was this:

“Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community,” Fabienne Roth, a member of the Undergraduate Students Association Council, began, looking at Ms. Beyda at the other end of the room, “how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?”

Right afterwards the Board voted to reject Beyda’s candidacy. After the strong prodding of a faculty member and further discussion, however, they reversed the decision and elected her.

The incident, rightly so, has created a firestorm at U.C.L.A. Imagine if they had challenged the candidacy of the (hypothetical) white captain of the football team, noting that he would not be able to be objective if an athlete were brought in for disciplinary action; or, an African-American student, telling her they doubted she would be impartial towards certain ethnic or racial groups. Phew!

When I teach empathy, which is a foundational ability of trusted advisors, I talk about three core attributes you have to develop and manifest in your client interactions:

  • Humility
  • Listening skills
  • Self-awareness

Self-awareness means awareness of your biases. Do certain types of people upset you and knock you off balance? Do you have certain (perhaps unconscious) attitudes towards people of color, men or women executives, older managers, younger managers, etc.? If you don’t get in touch with these, you won’t listen to the other person. You will discount what they say.

Many women professionals I have worked with have experienced gender bias at some point in their careers, for example. I have heard dozens of stories in this regard and they are all similar: A woman executive goes to a meeting with a man who is her junior. The men on the other side of the table act as if the man who is with her is her boss, and direct all their attention towards him, ignoring her.

One woman lawyer told me that early in her career, a potential client called her up to discuss using her legal services. When he learned what her billing rate was, he replied, “Based on your picture I didn’t think you’d be charging that much.” You can’t make this stuff up.

Similarly, studies have shown that African-American patients get less good medical care from certain types of specialists (like cardiologists). Why? We don’t know, but I suspect it may be because their doctors don’t listen as carefully to them, based on subconscious (or even possibly explicit) biases.

In the case of the U.C.L.A. Student Council, many different levels of bias were revealed.

First, anti-semitism (it’s an old trope: Jews are not loyal to their country/company/organization/community etc.).

Second—and more subtly—anti-faith. The idea—which is false—is this: If you have a strong religious faith, you can’t be objective. Only a thoroughly secular perspective is truly impartial. But this is patently untrue, because—for example—atheism or agnosticism is itself a faith and specific worldview. It is not an “unbiased” perspective—it is a truth claim just like belief in God is a truth claim. This is a subtle but important point. Just as having a strong faith can influence your opinions on different issues, so does secularism. Here are a few examples: Something as basic as a belief or non-belief in an afterlife will dramatically influence your views about what’s important in this life. Or, someone who does not believe in a supreme being or God may be more inclined to accept situational ethics and “relative morality”, whereas in the opposite case, someone who does believe in God is more apt to point to absolute ethical or moral standards that transcend the “current situation.” Having traveled and worked in nearly 40 countries, I have seen this first hand: What we in America think of as being true and important isn’t necessarily so in another culture. Who’s right?

Remember, biases are harmful in many ways, not least because they cause you to not listen and to devalue what the other person has said–and, to devalue them as an individual.

So the starting point for a truly egalitarian society is actually self-awareness. That is, realizing that your intellectual admiration for the idea of equality will be instantly overcome by your conscious or subconscious biases. And believe me, you—and I—have them.

And the next step is having the courage to give up our biases.

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