Holding space for possibility

It was another Zoom coffee chat, this one happening a week after George Floyd’s death. One participant, a social justice activist, asked if, in light of current events, would any of us describe ourselves as racist.

“Absolutely not,” said one participant. “I’m completely colorblind.”

“For real? You’re not just playing around with me?” Asked the activist.

“I’m not playing with you. I’m certain about not being racist.”

Ah, how our brains love certainty. I’ve tumbled into the trap of certainty trap several times.

On one occasion, a group of us were working on a national project to improve call center productivity. We were certain the solution we’d designed would solve the problem. When we confidently (and a little arrogantly) presented our proposal to the boss, he encouraged us to give our plan “a good think”—one of his favorite reminders when something wasn’t quite right—and get back to him.

We gave our proposal a “good think,” but it wasn’t as thorough as it should have been. Witness our shock (and embarrassment) by the fatal flaw our boss pointed out. We had completely disadvantaged one set of workers.

Our error could have surfaced had we not been blinded by our own certainty. Certainty that had been shaped—as well as rewarded—by past successes, group think, and implicit bias.

Give this list of practices a good think in light of practices you see as routine and normal:

  • Valued traditions unthinkingly practiced over and over.
  • Intentions that give the benefit of the doubt even when observable actions are morally or ethically questionable.
  •  Existing hierarchy that’s routinely accepted as a means to communicate, control, and distribute power with rules and status used to justify and assert personal dominance.
  • Workplaces that prize being a cultural fit and a team player.
  •  Sincerely believing that only bad people have biases and prejudices.
  • Expecting that all people will define “reasonable doubt” the same way.
  • Describing the workplace is a meritocracy.
  • Being wary of those who physically look different.
  • Not finding anything noteworthy in the fact that our three best friends look just like us and share similar backgrounds.
  • Feeling comforted when someone comes out as being gay or bisexual.
  • Not being surprised when the landscaping crew is Latino or the housekeeping staff is black.
  • Accepting the need to choose between results and relationships or work and health, and expecting to be rewarded for doing so.
  • Substituting value judgments for scientific evidence, and opinions for fact.
  • Seeing acts of symbolism as being action.

How many of these practices resonate as being normal? As something you wouldn’t question? As things you routinely encounter in the institutions, organizations, and structures in which you participate?

If the “normalness” of any of these practices dovetailed with your sense of certainty of their rightness, that sense was most likely shaped by institutional bias.

Institutional bias is:

  • A tendency for the procedures and practices of particular institutions to operate in ways which result in certain social groups being advantaged or favored and others being disadvantaged or devalued. This need not be the result of any conscious prejudice or discrimination but rather of the majority simply following existing rules or norms. ~Oxford Reference
  • Practices, scripts, or procedures that work to systematically give advantage to certain groups or agendas over others. ~Encyclopedia Britannica
  • Those established laws, customs, and practices which systematically reflect and produce group-based inequities in any society. An institution may be biased whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have biased intentions. ~P.J. Henry

All four officers involved in George Floyd’s death participated in organizational practices re-enforced by training, norms, etc., that seemed normal. Just like my friend’s response to the possibility of her being racist. Being wrong or racist or sexist just wasn’t possible.

But it is.

The social science research demonstrates that one does not have to be a racist with a capital R, or one who intentionally discriminates on the basis of race, to harbor implicit racial biases. ~Cynthia Lee, George Washington University School of Law professor

Our sense of certainty may close our minds and obscure bias despite our good intentions. The secret to stamping out all the “-isms” that unnecessarily divide people is to let go of certainty and make ourselves uncomfortable.

People steer clear of uncertainty because it puts the limbic system on alert. Certainty, no matter how comforting it feels, fuels institutional bias and its resultant separations and exclusions.

To ensure equity, each one of us has to hold space for possibility, no matter how uncomfortable. We have to willingly question our certainties to ensure that systemic practices, scripts, or procedures don’t get in the way of having an open mind and being inclusive.

Sit down before facts like a child, and be prepared to give up every preconceived notion, follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses Nature leads, or you shall learn nothing. ~Thomas Huxley, biologist and anthropologist

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