Shedding the Shackles of Unconscious Bias

by Shiloh Gideon-Sjostrom

There was a dramatic moment in the college class I was teaching. We had been discussing bias, racism, and ethnocentrism when a student stood up and gave the rest of us his opinion on the matter. “Why do we need to talk about this over and over?!” he said. “We are all equal. There is only one race. The human race!” Then he sat down. I tried not to roll my eyes. Then I smiled and calmly carried on the class. I understand the irritation of having to discuss an issue many times, though the student’s frustrations were misplaced. He should have been more appalled at how much inequality we still have in this world. He needed a little adjustment in the lenses he was using to view the world. And I, too, find myself needing a prescription check sometimes!

In our polarized cultural atmosphere, we might sometimes find ourselves in a bind about how to express our thoughts on topics considered politically incorrect. Let’s focus on one such uncomfortable topic—unconscious bias—and see how being unaware of our own biases prevents us from ministering to the world in a genuinely loving way. Bias at its core means preferring a thing, a person, or a group over another—when we are unaware of this preference, it’s called unconscious or implicit bias.

Take a quick inventory and check if you primarily feel fear, disgust, dismissiveness, anger, superiority, or pity toward a group of people. If you do, chances are bias is at work. So what can we do to tackle unconscious bias? We simply turn the lenses on ourselves so we see more clearly how we look at the world.

The story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 is a great place to start. Jesus turns the lenses of cultural and religious superiority back on the audience. The Samaritan shows extraordinary kindness by dressing the injured man’s wounds, humility by leading the donkey like a servant would, and generosity by providing for the man’s needs. The hero of this story is the “despised” Samaritan who behaves in a way the audience should have behaved. Do we find ourselves starting to resemble the audience of this parable because we quietly nurture feelings of superiority?

Another way to shed our blinders is to recognize we have “fundamental attribution errors.” For example, if I am successful in putting together a piece of IKEA furniture, it is because of my own prowess, and if not, it’s because of those inept instructions! We often see the world in this way—we think our negative behaviors or actions are a result of factors outside our control. But when it comes to others, we perceive their negative behaviors to be a result of their own choices and lack of responsibility. Is this how we think of people in poverty, perhaps?

Finally, I want to borrow a concept from the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber. We tend to think of the world in terms of us versus them or “I and it.” When we think of the people around us as an “it,” we become dismissive of them. But if we think of the world as “I and thou,” we have the power to hold the other person in high esteem. Jesus showed us how to do this when he elevated women, the weak, the poor, and the ethnically despised—people who were dismissed by the culture of the day. Can we with humility count others more significant than ourselves (see Philippians 2:3)?

When we check our own biases, we will see our own brokenness and how much we need the healing work of the Gospel. As disciples of Christ, we should not retreat from tackling uncomfortable topics. Because then we have to accept the answers this world provides. And those answers paint an utterly incomplete picture of brokenness. Like that student in my class, we can retreat or pretend to love and understand. Or we can choose to engage. Engaging takes effort. Engaging requires us to look at the painful parts of our history—of how systemic racism and bias pervade our society. But we have a Savior whose example we can follow. With the hope found in Jesus, we have the power to address the brokenness in this world and in ourselves.