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Confronting your unconscious bias: 'Lean into that discomfort'

Posted at 5:43 PM, Mar 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-08 18:58:56-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- What do you see when you look in the mirror? How do you stand in your truth? Do your life experiences color decisions you make in a way that negatively impacts others?

Dr. Janice Underwood, Virginia's Chief Diversity, Equity & Inclusion officer, said everyone has unconscious bias.

"Talking about race is very uncomfortable. It’s the only topic we are taught not to talk about," Underwood said.

Underwood, the first-ever state government cabinet position of this kind in the country, was appointed by Governor Ralph Northam. It’s a post that the Virginia General Assembly has now required to be included in all future administrations.

"Good people can make mistakes and advance racist ideology because we have lived in and been socialized in a racist system that has been built that way," she said. "But folks who are racist doesn't mean they have to stay there."

Her job is to make sure that bias is consistently addressed in the Commonwealth and not allowed to exclude a person from professional opportunities.

Adrienne Alberts, Chief Diversity Officer for The American Red Cross, has spent her career tackling diversity, equity, and inclusion issues in higher education. The James Madison University graduate said hidden bias sways decisions like the neighborhoods we choose to live in, our circle of friends, where we worship, eat, and send our kids to school. It can even impact how people are hired or blocked from certain jobs.

She believes change requires self-reflection and admitting our bias.

“I think that what might keep us from wanting to own our own bias is this notion that there is a right or wrong. That there is a good or bad. That we often apply some level of judgment to the biases that we hold. In reality, they are all formed based on our lived experiences” Alberts said.

Dismantling hidden bias, Alberts and Underwood agree, will be a lifelong task.

Addressing it will undoubtedly spark uncomfortable conversations, but for those who are committed, the two believe it’s a process that can also spark true change.

“Lean into that discomfort because that’s where the transformation happens," Dr. Underwood explained. "That’s when the light bulb goes off and when we begin to move toward inclusive excellence."

"It really is about the process of being open and exploring and changing," Alberts added. "Most of that type of experience brings about a little bit of discomfort. I’m just proud that we are leaning into it and willing to experience this type of discomfort to make sure that we create a space for everybody’s voice to be heard."

Reginald Carter believes hidden bias and racism impacted his education growing up in a rural Virginia county.

He recently shared with CBS 6 how he stumbled upon the story of thirteen freed Richmond slaves.

The men founded a local newspaper in 1882.

It was a lesson Carter said he wasn’t taught in school.

He said he wondered how many others he missed simply because someone’s bias kept an important part of Virginia history from being shared.

"To have this newspaper here in Virginia, let alone in Richmond, and not everyone know about it, I feel it’s a disservice," Carter said.

Carter has started his own mission to tell the story of The Richmond Planet that he never learned. He’s leading an effort to honor the paper’s founders through a proposed DMV license plate.

He also works in human relations for the state and sees the value of diversity and inclusion training provided to employees.

He said he believed working within one’s own circle can precipitate change.

"I pride myself on being a good friend, so if my friends say something that I deem to be inappropriate, I think that we can have a conversation and they would respect me and my views enough to be receptive of that to constructive criticism and vice versa," Carter said.

Dr. Underwood said society must understand that we are all going to make mistakes.

"But there has got to be a restorative path back," Underwood added. "So when I do make a mistake, I don’t throw the other person away. I go back to have a conversation and make it right and learn so that I can respect your humanity going forward."