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Bias Can't Be Outlawed, Now What?

"Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced." James Baldwin, black American writer

Our little community of Cashmere has been getting some bad press lately. According to some reports there have been racial slurs directed particularly toward one young man who was adopted as a child from Nigeria (I am told). The news around that continues to unfold, but it made me think more about what we do about racial bias and bias in general. And…thoughts about how we become good humans, raise good humans.

Because here’s the bottom line. You can’t outlaw bias. You can’t mandate positive views toward others. You can’t order kindness and morality. You can’t even effectively preach people into being good humans.

How can I say that with such blatant confidence? Because of decades of social science research. The studies started shortly before World War II and the research. Training programs went into high gear after Wall Street firms repeatedly had to shell out millions to settle discrimination lawsuits.

And…the results? Mostly the training backfires. Why? Because people don’t like being told what to think, how to behave. People hate force feeding. Compulsory classes. People get angry and resentful. Even more animosity may be directed toward the very groups the training is trying to help.

(If you want to know my major source on this, it comes from Dr. Frank Dobbin and Dr. Alexandra Kalev who have examined tons of research and done their own research with hundreds of firms – some of their articles are carried in the Harvard Business Review).

Another thing that organizations have relied on is grievance systems. That’s backfired too because it often sets the stage for revenge on the whistleblower. People stop reporting.

So, what does make a difference? Voluntary training and participation for starters – drawing in people to try to solve their own problems without being told what to do. That allows people to unleash their autonomy and creativity and agreements. People want to be seen and want to feel that they are fair-minded. Managers in the studies often participated when invited rather than mandated to attend training.

Positive contact between groups works. This was seen on the European Front during World War II. Eisenhower was general then. He asked for black volunteers to fight in combat roles. Until that time only white served in that capacity. But when blacks and whites fought alongside each other identifying as equals and thinking of themselves primarily as soldiers fighting for a common cause, bias took a significant dip. This was something that laws had not accomplished, particularly in the South.

Others’ behavior makes a difference. We humans generally do what we see others doing…particularly when they are rewarded in some way for doing it. When people see others donating to charity, they often do the same. Notably researchers have found that “preaching” at others to donate often had a negative effect.

Models especially make a difference. Children often follow the lead of their parents and people of stature. And, interestingly, some studies find that children are more influenced by bad behavior than by good. My source on this is a recent book by Dr. Paul Bloom – Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil.

I offer the title because, it has a good chapter, the final chapter, on How To Be Good which synthesizes much of the research in the area of morality and behaving kindly toward each other…expanding our circle toward caring for others including strangers and people who we identify as somehow different. You may want to check it out.

Positive stories seem to make a difference on people’s behaviors and attitudes. An example is the book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin written in 1852 by Harriet Beecher Stowe. According to Bloom it was the bestselling novel of the nineteenth century. It helped whites imagine slavery from the point of view of being a slave. It evidently changed many people’s opinion about slavery.

Other books that Bloom offers are Oliver Twist written by Charles Dickens set in nineteenth-century Britain, Schindler’s List, Hotel Rwanda where the reader is given a chance to see the world from totally different perspectives.

A friend of mine has given several of her informally adopted kids the book Wonder by R.J. Palacio which is about a youngster with a severe facial deformity. I saw the movie and was touched as well to consider how people who look different feel. People often report that they feel different about autistic people after watching or reading stories about or books written by Dr. Temple Grandin.

I’m taking a little extra time with this positive story piece because I have seen it work in my life so powerfully. Recently I read a series of books from the perspective of the police and police detectives. I recall how angry I became with the nasty defense attorneys. Then this same author wrote a series of books from the perspective of a defense attorney. Then I became fried with the police’s unfair behavior. It gave me good insight into how taking a side (even while reading a book) sparks our emotions. Emotions fuel behavior.

In terms of what works in schools, I’m not sure about the research, but it seems logical to me that programs I have described on this blog around restorative practices would be effective. Restorative practices aim toward people/kids getting to know each other as human beings. (Years ago, when I was a teacher, it seemed to be common knowledge that time spent getting to know each other was well spent not only in terms of discipline, but also academic performance). Accountability (in restorative practice) occurs when self-imposed agreements are broken. That accountability is delivered in a “thoughtful way” rather than shaming and expulsion which does little to change behaviors and attitudes.

What’s the “thoughtful way” I mentioned? Well, a person who is not triggered by offensive behavior asks curious questions. The same ones. Consistently. Questions like: What happened? What were you thinking? What was the impact of your behavior? What are you thinking now? How can we make this better? Those kinds of questions help us deal with ourselves and others.

There are other ideas out there. Being better people – more thoughtful, more understanding of others, more kind. It’s no easy task. Our schools cannot be expected to solve a problem that has plagued civilizations for centuries. Religions have worked on it too, without much to show for it, but there’s some data there too.

Researchers Robert Putnam and David Campbell tried to see if there was some causal effect or even correlation to religious beliefs and being better humans in terms of charity and helping others outside our own circle – being neighborly and kind. As it turns out (according to their research), certain beliefs don’t seem to have much of an impact, rather it’s the belonging aspect of religion which makes a difference. The community.

In their own words, “Once we know how observant a person is in terms of church attendance, nothing that we can discover about the content of her religious faith adds anything to our understanding or prediction of her good neighborliness….In fact, the statistics suggest that even an atheist who happened to become involved in the social life of the congregation (perhaps through a spouse) is much more likely to volunteer in a soup kitchen than the most fervent believer who prays along. It is religious belongingness that matters for neighborliness, not religious believing.”

Ok, that’s all a lot to take in. A lot of it hard to swallow. Where to go with it all?

First we do have the capacity to be better humans. That’s the good news – we have lots of evidence for “seeds” of morality. And… we can get off track. Preaching at us, mandates don’t help us be better it seems.

Inviting us to see the problem together, getting us engaged, offering opportunities for positive contact, positive models, positive stories, positive – “thoughtful” approaches to accountability, and opportunities for belonging to communities of “goodness” may be better for moving the needle toward being better humans and… raising good humans rather than getting in each other’s faces.

Where I’m going to start is to take responsibility for how I am showing up. In the book Raising Good Humans by Hunter Clarke-Fields, the whole first part of the book is aimed toward being honest with ourselves individually about how we are showing up - what triggers me personally, what causes me to lash out, what causes me to be unkind and disrespectful to others. And what helps me be thoughtful, calm, centered, caring…that’s enough to ponder for today.

How might we take responsibility for being a better human ourselves – use the tactics that have promise, rather than expecting that we can mandate ourselves and others into being good humans and journey together to the Good Life?

(feel free to send me your thoughts and feelings about bias and tactics that help us be good humans


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