unconscious biases in the workplace

“What you talkin bout, Willis?”

Unconscious Bias in the Workplace

The title of this article was made famous by the seventies sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes,” which depicts the adoption of two black boys by a Park Avenue businessman. The phrase was often used by the younger adoptee, Arnold when he was unclear with something his brother Willis said to him. While this was often very funny coming from this pint-sized, chubby-cheeked adorable black youth, it is sometimes the phrase we want to use when responding to “He is so articulate,” or “She speaks so well.”

This fast and frenzied world we live in, along with our own unconscious bias, cause people to say things like this as if they are compliments. Take it from me; those statements are not complimenting. Both comments strike people of color as if it is incredible that brown people can speak well.

Many factors contribute to how nonwhite people communicate.

Consider: Slaves brought to this country had to learn a new language. According to Dr. Will Guzman from New Jersey City University, slaveholders often separated Africans speaking a similar dialect. 1 The practice can inhibit communication among slaves. Similarly, talking among the slave community was often prohibited. But the new Americans found a way of deflecting attention from themselves and communicating with those sharing their plight. Words were shortened. For example, the “door” might become the “doe.”

It has been said that new Americans were challenged with certain consonants such as the group of “SK,” so you would hear the word Ask, pronounced as Aks. An opinion piece written by John McWhorter in the Los Angeles Times suggests “aks” was used primarily by indentured servants, whom black slaves in America worked alongside and learned English from. 2 Take all the above into account when you consider that the same phrases were passed down from one generation to another. Some were able to learn to read and taught their children to speak the “King’s English.” So much so, that when the phrase, “Oh, he is so articulate” is heard, some people of color want to respond, “What you talkin bout, Willis?” Does that mean I should not possess the ability to speak well, or you did not know it was possible? Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that all speech is proper speech, but we should think before making those statements.

The misunderstandings that exist about the English language and people of color do not end there. Please look at a session I facilitated on time management for social workers. A simple course on time management revealed the real problem – unconscious bias in the workplace. White social workers believed the Hispanic social workers took too long to complete reports, and that was the reason they were experiencing a slow flow of paperwork in the agency.

As the social workers filed into the meeting room, it was apparent there was a lot of tension. The session started, but before I could get to slide three of my presentation, one of the White social workers (let us call her Mary) said, “This is not a good idea!” This session, I asked. Yes, she shouted, if we are not willing to deal with the elephant in the room, why are we talking about time management? I asked the group if it was OK for her to elaborate here. The answer was a resounding YES!

Mary described the problem of late reports coming from the Hispanic social workers. When she was done, a Hispanic social worker (Let us call her Martha) chimed in; Martha said it probably feels delayed as well when you ask questions, and it takes us a few minutes to respond. Would you agree, Mary? Mary let out a huge sigh and said, “Yes, it does!”

Martha asks Mary if she was aware that English was her second language. The response she received was, “What difference does that make?” Martha goes on to explain that when asked a question in English, she has to translate it to her native tongue, make sure she understands, come up with the answer in her native language and convert it to English. So, Martha says, I can see where there could be a delay. This is also what happens with our reports.

Martha turns to the manager and asks if it is possible to move the reporting deadline up one day to provide the needed time for interpretation. The manager agreed, and Mary apologized. Why? Because frustration could set in without adequate information.

The moral of both stories is the same. Everyone is different. We owe every member of our team the opportunity to be a person coming to the table with what they have and not needing to fight past unconscious bias in the workplace that create conflict and hinder communication.


1. Dr. Will Guzmán appointed as new Director of Lee Hagan Africana Studies Center

2. The ‘ax’ versus ‘ask’ question

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *