March 28, 2020

Upstander Tip: Confronting Bias

Many of our colleagues have shared with us that they have witnessed or been on the receiving end of inappropriate and discriminatory comments as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. We have been asked for guidance on how to handle these situations – a set of FAQs is below. Above all, we remind all that the virus is our common enemy, not our fellow human-kind.

Where is this behavior coming from?

Our brains are generally wired for connection, but when we experience stress or trauma, our brains rewire us for protection. This is a natural response – but when we start to draw protective boundaries that are based on race, ethnicity, national origin, or other identity bases, that is both dangerous and divisive.

In the case of COVID-19, there is a lot of fear arising, as we can’t yet control it and early impacts are significant. In the face of this fear, some people have created a false narrative demonizing people from China and other people of Asian descent. This, among other factors, has fueled inappropriate comments and behavior towards Asian people.

I’m uncomfortable handling this type of situation – is it okay for me to just let it go?

When we witness someone making offensive comments, our first inclination may be to let the remarks go, either because we are scared, because we don’t know how to confront the person or because we don’t want to “offend” the person making the remarks. But we walk away feeling unsatisfied, because a value that we hold has been undermined – and we have not stood up for what we believe. As Nobel laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”

I want to be an upstander and not a bystander. How do I start?

Use the strategies below to help you take action in the moment, or to circle back with a person for a follow-up conversation:

Perspective Taking

Perspective taking is a powerful learning tool that helps people see the world through a marginalized group lens and begin to understand the impacts of their own behavior. This approach helps increase people’s awareness of and sensitivity towards the issues faced by others. Ask the person how she would feel if she stood in the shoes of the person being marginalized, or if someone marginalized her or someone she loves on the basis of their identity (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, LGBTQ status, etc.).

Paraphrasing / Seeking Understanding

When we hear what we have said repeated back to us, we often recognize for ourselves the potential impact of our words on others. Repeating the person’s inappropriate comment and asking for clarification may help the person realize that the comment was inappropriate. State: “I want to make sure I understand what you said. You said [xyz]? What did you mean when you said that?”

“Ouch!” Statement

You can draw on your own courage in the face of an inappropriate comment by using the word “Ouch.” Once you have signaled your discomfort by using that word, you can be direct about how the comment has impacted you or how the statement is offensive. State: “Ouch! What you just said is incredibly offensive to me because [xyz].”

“When You, I Feel” Framework

When we let people know how their words impact us, it takes away the opportunity for argument about underlying facts or circumstances – as the impact becomes the focal point. If you have tried to discuss inappropriate comments with someone previously and they have argued their point, use this approach. State: “When you say [xyz], it makes me feel uncomfortable and incredibly disrespected.”

Inquiry Model

Inquiry can help you deepen your understanding of the thoughts and feelings that led to an inappropriate comment or action, so that you can then help suggest ways for a person to change his or her perspectives or assumptions. Ask: “What led you to make that statement / draw that conclusion?”

Intention Statement

A person is more likely to commit to an idea or course of action that he or she originates. In this context, if you have established that a comment or action is inappropriate, ask the person how she will behave the next time she encounters a triggering situation. E.g., ask: “What will you do next time you are in that situation?”

What if I am noticing bias in my own reactions to people around me?

Use the strategies below to help you confront your own bias:

Rewriting the Story

Your bias is created by the dominant information in your environment. If you are constantly consuming information that creates a negative connection between COVID-19 and China, your mind will perpetuate that story. Find positive storylines to combat the negative storylines, e.g., “On January 11, Chinese authorities shared the genetic sequence of COVID-19, permitting vaccine development to begin in earnest.”

Perspective Taking

Use the perspective taking tip, above, to imagine yourself in the shoes of the person you are stereotyping.

Exposing Yourself to Counter-Examples

If you are creating stories in your mind about particular segments of our population, expose yourself via online videos to inspiring leaders from that community to rewire your brain. When social distancing is relaxed, find ways to join in community events that will expose you to people from different communities.

Setting an Intention

You can mitigate your bias by setting a specific intention for yourself when you are in a situation where you have noticed bias arising. Think: “When I am in xyz situation, I will remember my values around fairness, respect and kindness, and I will let go of my bias.”

Learn more about Diversity + Inclusion at Goodwin.