Over the weekend, two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks for doing nothing, essentially. According to eyewitnesses (and a video that backs up their story), the two men were merely sitting in the store waiting for a friend to join them.
Some may argue that the men were guilty of having the temerity to refuse the manager who asked them to leave, but the undeniable reality is that the police were called and the men were arrested solely based on the colour of their skin.
WATCH: Audio released from Philadelphia Starbucks incident of 911 call, police dispatch and officer transmissions
Since the story broke, and subsequently went viral, the term “unconscious bias” has taken over headlines. And while it may sound like a cop-out of a term, there’s some very real and very grounded science behind it.
“The amygdala of our brain is hardwired to be suspicious of difference, and it triggers the classic emotional response of fight or flight,” says Renee Bazile-Jones, senior director of learning at the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion. “That’s what fuels unconscious bias: the knee-jerk response to someone who’s different.”
Bazile-Jones, a woman of colour who grew up in the U.S. under segregation, says she has had first-hand experience with the attitudes toward black people in America.
WATCH BELOW: Starbucks apologizes for arrests of two black men
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the Starbucks manager was functioning under an unconscious bias toward people of colour — indeed, Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson said as much when he called for “training around unconscious bias.” Today, the coffee giant announced that it would be closing all company-owned stores in the U.S. on the afternoon of May 29 to conduct “racial-bias education.”
But if it’s something that’s hardwired in our brains, how can we blame the Starbucks manager for acting on it?
“The amygdala does control basic emotion and our reactions, but we are also evolved people,” says Dr. Kelly Donohoe, a Pittsburgh-based psychologist who specializes in unconscious bias. “We have a frontal cortex that’s quite large and is responsible for our executive functions, like higher thinking, planning and other things that make us human. All we need to do is engage it to have control over those initial reactions.”
How does our unconscious bias develop?
While the unconscious bias is innate in our brains, we’re not born with a natural bias toward a certain group of people. To be clear, it’s one thing for an unconscious bias to trigger fear of a shadowed figure in a dark alley, it’s quite another for it to incite fear of two black men minding their own business in a Starbucks in the middle of the day.
“We have a number of reliable sources for our bias, including instinct and the media, but our upbringing also plays a large role,” Bazile-Jones says.
She also points to cultural mores and the opportunities it presents for biases, as well as our own self-identification.
“If I’m a parent and that’s a strong identifier for me that formulates the lens through which I look at people, I may make judgements on people who aren’t parents.”
Once again, our brains are very adept at taking an unconscious bias and using it to alter reality. Studies have shown that the brain can really stick with an idea once it has embraced it. Therefore, if you unconsciously view all black people as potential threats, even if you see a black person who isn’t doing anything threatening, your brain won’t read it that way.
How do we know we have an unconscious bias?
Bazile-Jones says this is seen in the use of language. If you hear yourself, either vocally or internally, saying “they are” to describe a group of people, whether they’re of a particular race, sexual orientation, gender or socioeconomic demographic, that’s usually a giveaway of a bias.
“Those words act as a trigger of an unconscious bias and that will have an impact on your behaviour.”
The key, she says, is to recognize the trigger and correlate it back to where it came from.
“The snap judgement is a really critical connector, because you’re not doing it on a conscious level. Identifying the trigger is important.”
How can we deprogram our brains?
The short answer is that we can’t. But we can take steps to curb our unconscious biases, and like any self-help program, it starts with admitting you have a bias.
“I like to talk about the fluid EQ (or emotional quotient). It starts with awareness of your biases, but also includes moving past the shame and guilt that we may associate with it,” Donohoe says.
In acknowledging our unconscious biases it also gives us the opportunity to educate ourselves on what other people experience when they’re on the receiving end of an unconscious bias. It may also shine a light on how we are susceptible to them, too.
Finally, she teaches empathy — and she stresses that empathy is learned, not innate. By engaging in mindfulness and active listening, she says, it allows us to be empathetic towards another person enough that it will engage the frontal cortex of the brain, which is the part that stops us from running with our emotions.
“We have lots of impulses, but we don’t act on all of them. It’s inexcusable to use this as a way of saying that people can’t control their unconscious biases.”
Despite the fact that we can’t just wipe unconscious biases from our brains, and that it requires work and awareness to curb them, all hope is not lost.
“We conduct a lot of unconscious bias programs and 90 per cent of the people we talk to are trying to do the right thing,” Bazile-Jones says. “We spend a lot of time trying to fix that 10 per cent without being conscious or acknowledging the 90 per cent. The Starbucks manager is a 10 per center — you don’t want to drown in that.”