Homo Erectus: The Evolution of Us: On Being Racist, Sexist, and Having Gay Cave People’s Brains

By : Dr. Steve Yacovelli
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Steve Yacovelli

Steve Yacovelli

I have a confession to make: I’m a racist.

For those who know me, that might come as a shock, since I’m a diversity and inclusion consultant. But yes; I’m racist. But you know what? To some extent you are, too.

If you’ve ever seen the musical Avenue Q (winner of the 2004 Tony for Best Broadway Musical, FYI), you might be familiar with the song, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” In this song several of the characters sing (joyously!) about how they’re racist. They sing not about overt or explicit racism but more subversive, unconscious bias that we humans all have. It was that moment when I first heard that song that the concept of hidden or unconscious bias hit my, well, consciousness.

What’s hidden or unconscious bias? It’s the preference for or against a person, thing or group held at an unconscious level. This means we don’t even realize our minds are holding onto this bias of, say, that person on the phone who is speaking English as a second language, or that effeminate man in front of us at the restaurant who isn’t what we were taught to understand as “masculine.” In contrast, an overt – or explicit – bias is an attitude or prejudice that one endorses at a conscious level; it’s obvious and blatant.

Research on hidden bias shows that, regardless of the best intentions, most people hold deep-seated resistance to the “difference” of others, whether that difference is defined by evident factors as race, gender, ethnicity, age or physical characteristics, or more subtle ones such as background, personality type, experiences or even sexual orientation. But bias can also exist in a positive sense: We may favor our family, our community and people with whom we feel a connection based on shared characteristics or experiences (maybe even other LGBTQ people simply because they’re LGBTQ peeps). These hidden biases aren’t purposely or consciously created; they are products of our brain’s self-generated definition of normal, acceptable or positive, and they are shaped by many factors: from past experiences to our local or cultural environment, to the influence of social community and the impressions from media.

Why do we have them? Well, we can blame it on our cave ancestors. Back in the day a cave person had to quickly decide if the big-furry-sharp-toothed-animal at the cave door was friend or foe; and those quick ascertainments of safety were processed in our cave-brains. Science has shown that we receive 11 million bits of information every moment, but we can only consciously process 40 bits of data at any time. How do we manage with that 99.9999996 percent gap? Through our unconscious bias. So, as humans it is perfectly natural for us to create these “cognitive shortcuts” to help us be safe and survive and manage all this data input.

But in 2015, we aren’t cave folk; and that wiring sometimes goes against how we want our “auto systems” to work for the most part. Think about you at work: Do you want your cave-wiring impulsively taking over who you should work with, the feelings you have toward hiring someone, or defining how you act towards a new co-workers? Most of us don’t. We want to have our conscious brains be prevalent, and that’s not always easy to do.

So what do you do about this managing our unconscious cave-selves? Well, the first step is accepting that we DO have unconscious bias. I was running a workshop on unconscious bias the other week and asked the question, “Who’s racist?” I raised my hand, and out of the 60-plus people in the audience, about four others acknowledged they’re racist. As my co-facilitator noted, what was interesting wasn’t those of us who raised our hands but that the rest of the workshop participants didn’t also theirs. We all have a skewed view of the world through our respective lenses, but it’s having that awareness that we do have these skewed views of the world is vital to help make change and manage our behaviors and not succumb to out hidden unconscious.

Next it’s educating others about their own hidden biases. “But I’m not homophobic,” you might hear. “I’ve many gay friends!” These types of statements are coming from the consciousness, and not necessarily from our true unconscious or hidden bias-selves. So helping people – respectfully – understand that their hidden biases are showing is important.

Finally, it’s looking at the bigger picture: the institutional biases that exist, and how we can start to challenge them. Why does your company hire white dudes? Are you marketing messages pretty non-inclusive? Do you tend to have friends whose demographic make-up is very similar (all lesbian friends, all gay friends)? Think about these and decide if your unconscious biases are determining your actions.

So we’re all racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or any other “–ist.” And that’s OK; that means we’re human. It how we managing these feelings and manage our actions that is the most important thing to “unbias” ourselves.

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