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Want to be a better ally? Help your colleagues overcome subtle prejudice.

Diversity and inclusion illustrated with colorful sheets.
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Malignant discrimination remains a problem in society, but it’s one we’ve improved upon compared to its historic highs—or, rather, lows. Interracial marriage, to pick one example of progress, used to be considered taboo among Americans. Both Gallup and Pew Research Center surveys have found that Americans of all ethnicities increasingly support marriage between people of different races.
When discussing prejudice, examples like interracial marriage taboos are often what we consider. That’s partly because such malign examples are easy to define, observe, and censure. It’s also because we can demonstrate definitive, though not finalized, progress, an earned feather in humanity’s cap.
But there are other, more subtle forms of discrimination that we must work to limit in our society and organizations.

In this video lesson, RebelMouse CEO Andrea Breanna discusses one such form: benign discrimination.

Become conscious of unconscious bias

  • The foundation of benign discrimination is a lack of attention to privilege.
  • Benign discrimination is often unintentional. It may come about when certain groups:
    • Talk over others
    • Assume they have the answers
    • Ask indirect probing questions about someone’s identity

As defined here, benign discrimination is an act that subtly, not even consciously, reinforces a stereotype or prejudice because of someone’s association with a particular group or characteristic.
Breanna provides the consequential example of men who talk over women and assume male priority. Such actions discriminate against colleagues by suggesting, while not outright stating, that women coworkers are incompetent, out of their element, or should be deferential to male coworkers. Such behavior can have many adverse effects, from injuring the woman’s self-confidence to building a culture that favors dominance over congenial collaboration.
Of course, as with any psychological phenomenon, it cuts both ways. Men can and do face benign discrimination at work, too. Research has shown that men who exhibit modesty and humility are viewed as less competent than similarly modest women. While others have shown that men who request family leave are viewed as poorer workers and less recommended for promotion, again compared to women who request the same leave.
The underpinning of benign discrimination is unconscious bias (a.k.a. implicit bias). Implicit bias is the prejudice and stereotypes we develop without intending to do so. They manifest in our personal histories, cultural backgrounds, work experiences, political leanings, our tastes in hobbies and pastimes, and the ideologies that we form and commit ourselves to.
And because those qualities are part of all our lives, we all have unconscious biases. Unfortunately, we can’t exorcise our unconscious biases like some extra-spiritual demon, but we can take steps to limit their effects in our interactions, mannerisms, and conscious thoughts. 
Breanna has provided us with a mindset shift: Try our best to be aware of implicit bias. We can then take further measures to inoculate ourselves with improved information. For example:

  • Get to know people who belong to groups you don’t typically interact with.
  • Read books on historical figures who defy the stereotypes and prejudices of their day. For example, did you know the American record holder for the most time in space is a woman? Her name is Peggy Whitson, and she’s spent more than 600 cumulative days in space.
  • Develop meta-cognitive techniques to help you analyze your feelings and consider the perspective of others.
  • And make it a habit to learn new things about other people. You can be proactive about this (through conversation) or simply learn to identify individual qualities that defy group stereotypes.

Don’t be a silent witness

  • If you see or hear benign discrimination, don’t overthink it. Be yourself and speak up in the moment. The idea is to defuse the situation and correct the prejudice right away.
  • Try saying things like:
    • That person has won my respect and I think they deserve yours.”
    • I’m sorry, but you interrupted her.”

We need to speak up when we witness benign discrimination in action. Similarly, we need to be receptive when someone points out potential problems in our actions. Education is a two-way street. We can’t help others improve if we won’t let them help us.
That commitment requires a culture of trust, understanding, and a willingness to be open and vulnerable. 
When helping others, our goal should not be a moral win in a social competition. This isn’t WWE smackdown—or, worse, Twitter. No need for the office version of pyrotechnics and bombastic anthems as you call out your opponent. As Breanna notes, a gentle reminder is appropriate and can defuse a potentially harmful situation. 
Nor should we feel attacked when someone gently reminds us. As mentioned, we all have unconscious biases that can slip to the conscious surface. Someone pointing it out can help us identify it in future interactions.
Improve your intra-office relationships with lessons ‘For Business‘ from Big Think+. At Big Think+, Andrea Breanna joins more than 350 experts to teach the skills necessary to advance diversity and inclusion at your workplace. Learn how to create an equitable environment with lessons such as:

  1. Getting Equality with Men: Capitalize on Your Team’s Differences, with Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and Co-Founder of Ellevest
  2. The Power of Onlyness: Connect New Voices to the Group, with Nilofer Merchant, Marketing Expert
  3. Fostering Mutual Understanding: African-American Women and the C-Suite, with Valerie Purdie-Vaughns Greenaway, Associate Professor of Psychology, Columbia University
  4. Confronting Racism: Keeping the Work Going Within Our Organizations, with Robin DiAngelo, Author of White Fragility
  5. Diversify for Sustainable Success, with Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, National Managing Partner, KPMG LLP

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