You Are Biased (Even if You Think You’re Not.)

Mckensie Mack

Have you been on the Clubhouse app yet?

Clubhouse App on the Apple store

About a month ago, one of my closest friends texted me and told me that they were in a room with Joe Budden. I called them immediately, curious about what that meant in the age of COVID-19. And sure enough, when they answered my call from their computer, there was the voice of Joe Budden, on the increasingly popular Clubhouse app, responding to a comment my friend had made about something I can’t even recall now.

Shortly thereafter, this same friend sent me an invitation to join Clubhouse. I accepted with reluctance as I had no idea what I would find there. And what I found most likely lives on the wide and expansive spectrum of a digital anthropologist’s wildest dream…and worst nightmare. Because that’s just how life works. Clubhouse is another application that very naturally does what we, meaning our dominant society, pretends never to expect social platforms to do. It replicates the joys and greatest achievements of our society, but it also replicates our society’s challenges and failings.

As someone who spends plentiful hours at my computer screen facilitating conversations and transformations at the intersection of design thinking and human equity with some of the largest tech companies, global organizations, and social justice communities in the world; with intention, I decided that I would spend more of my time on the app listening and learning.

Clubhouse Makes Way for Influencers via the New York Times

And when I say learning, I don’t mean that I was necessarily taking in new information for the first time. But instead, I’ve been re-inforcing a lot of what I knew to be true before joining the app — especially when it comes to bias, inclusion, self-perception, community development, and the steps needed to build equitable, emotionally-aware, and inclusive cultures and communities in our world. As I engaged in the app, here are some questions that I asked myself:

Who’s moderating this conversation, and why? What’s their focus?

What are the community norms for this space? Are people engaging in this room explicitly reminded of these norms consistently and regularly?

Could an openly queer or trans woman of color be on this stage without being mistreated? If she were to be mistreated, would the moderators in this group speak up or intervene in that harm? Would they know how?

How is conflict approached? Are moderators quick to shut down a person or a room when there’s a disagreement? If so, who do they do that with? And how quickly?

How do moderators who hold multiple privileged identities respond to speakers who hold multiple marginalized identities?

So how does this all relate to bias? Well, think of access in our world as a jar of Nutella on the top shelf of an incredibly high cabinet. Those who are tallest will find it easier to open the cabinet and pull down the jar of Nutella. Those who are shortest will find it most difficult to find a way to gain access to that cabinet to reach for that same jar. Our world and our society are founded on a number of oppressions and myths about community and culture that, for the tallest, seem true because they don’t have to struggle with access like those for whom the use of the cabinet was never designed for, expected, or invited. See also grocery store psychology and how the most expensive items in a store, like baby formula, are placed conveniently at eye level for able-bodied people. In contrast, generic brands are placed on the lower shelves, so you have to bend down to get them.

In our society, when the shortest ask the tallest for help in reaching the high shelf, the tallest respond by telling them that they need to work harder to gain access and then proceed to tell some lengthy, irrelevant story about how even when they have a mild muscle strain, they still reached their hand right up there and grabbed that jar. Those who have the most power are conditioned to hoard it and see privilege as a matter only of working hard enough and triumphing over obstacles. Not as something we’re also assigned based on our embodiment of or proximity to whiteness, masculinity, abled-bodied capacity, and more.

Clubhouse is Dangerously Close to Becoming Our New Internet Wasteland via Vulture

For those who haven’t used the Clubhouse app before, the rooms are designed like a visual hierarchy with moderators at the top, people in the audience who are followed by the moderators in the middle, and then everyone else at the bottom.

On a social platform like Clubhouse, I’ve seen moderators exert dominance over those who come to the stage to share a relevant lived experience that applies to the theme discussed in that particular room. I have also seen individuals name when they’re on the receiving end of a moderator’s bias towards them more than a few times where the response has been, “I would never be sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, etc.,” without any self-interrogation from the moderator. And from there, the conversation becomes a reverse accusation that puts the brave soul who named the initial interaction potentially hurtful or harmful as the defendant in a room full of good people who just want to engage in a good conversation.

Our brains process 11 million bits of information every second. But we can only consciously remember about 16 to 40 bits of those pieces. For every bit that we remember or make a conscious note of, our brain unconsciously processes hundreds of thousands more. That means that a cis man (with “cis” here being a biological term used to describe people whose gender identity aligns with their gender assigned at birth) can consciously work to listen to women and to honor the labor of all women he meets. One day on Clubhouse, he becomes a moderator in a group about best practices for entrepreneurial success. Another moderator invites a woman to speak who begins to detail the success she’s experienced in an industry that this man occupies. He starts to feel unsettled for some reason, but he doesn’t interrogate the feeling. Instead, he reacts by interrupting the woman with feigned and condescending gratitude for her insights before asking one of his male friends on stage to speak. The woman mutes her mic and then leaves the room. She’s confused. Consciously, she, too, is unsettled. Unconsciously she’s received millions and millions of bits of information about what happens to women in public spaces when they speak confidently about their success with cis men present. This has long-lasting effects on her that don’t just go away when she leaves the app. In this hypothetical example, which happens in our society every day on Clubhouse and beyond it, she deserved to be treated well but wasn’t.

So what happened? Gender bias happened. How can we be sure? Because we have ample qualitative and quantitative data that tells us so. One of the biggest mistakes I see leaders in communities and organizations make when building equitable and anti-oppressive cultures is by leaning into what I call the auto-anomaly. Auto is a Greek word that means self and anomaly meaning something that goes against a common rule.

Leaders who hold the most power in community spaces see themselves as immune to the impacts of a society that rewards them for bias and punishes them for challenging inequitable power structures. That’s an auto-anomaly. It’s a self-labeled immunity that’s founded in the mythology that “If I don’t want to be biased, then I just won’t be.”

So what can we do about this? How can we identify and address our personally held biases? Well, here are four tips you can use to help you do just that:

  1. Examine your positionality. Long before the onset of COVID-19 and global protests for the Black Lives Matter Movement, anti-racism educators of all gender expressions and identities have been calling for those who hold the most privilege in our society to examine that privilege and to understand how that privilege can and is used to disenfranchise People of Color. Watch this video of Kimberlé Crenshaw describing how our identities impact how we are treated and perceived in our society. Ask yourself how you can apply this understanding to how you perceive the people you encounter on the Clubhouse app and everyday life.
  2. Accept that not every decision you make is a logical one based on reason. We all like to believe that we are logical and rational 100% of the time. But we’re not. Our conditioning around race, gender, sexual orientation, for example, is deeply ingrained in us all. Do your best not to underestimate the impacts societal conditioning around bias and discrimination has had on you. After all, we can’t reduce or mitigate something that we’re convinced doesn’t exist.
  3. Make a plan for how you’ll pause and think when you’re challenged on the ways your privilege impacts your judgment. Privilege is not a four-letter word. It’s a sociological term that refers to how power is wielded in our society. If you’re reading this article right now, you have the privilege of being able to read in English, and you have the privilege of having the time to visit an online publishing platform and sift through emerging ideas, concepts, frameworks that you can apply to your everyday life. The fact that we have privilege doesn’t make us bad or evil. It’s what we do with it that matters the most. Are we using it to hoard power? Are we using it to exert dominance? Are we using it to disrupt harm? Ask yourself those questions and be honest about the answers.
  4. Take a class in facilitation 101. As someone who has facilitated tough conversations and even more difficult transformational shifts in organizational structures and cultures globally, I can tell you that facilitation and moderation of conversations, even when light and fluffy, isn’t just something you do. It takes practice to become the kind of facilitator that recognizes how facilitation, when approached carelessly, can actually really hurt people, especially people who hold the least power in a room. Do some reading. Get yourself some education and hone your approach to facilitation. We need you to do that work so all of us can build braver, kinder, more resilient, and equitable communities together.

I want to leave you with this: We’d like to think that witnessing other people’s experiences with bias happens outside of us, beyond us. But in reality, it’s also happening to us, conditioning us, teaching us. It’s up to us to identify and confront that conditioning not to deny that we have biases, but so that we can acknowledge our bias, seek repair when we make mistakes, and become better human beings on this Earth.