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 seventy’s sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes,” which depicts the adoption of two black boys by a Park Avenue businessman. The younger adoptee, Arnold, often used the phrase when he was unclear about something his brother Willis said. 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 comments like, “He is so articulate” or “She speaks so well.”

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

Many factors contribute to how people of color communicate.

Consider: Enslaved people 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 enslaved people. Similarly, talking among the slave community was often prohibited. But the enslaved people found ways of deflecting attention from themselves and communicating with those sharing their plight. Words were shortened to reduce the time it took to spread the message. For example, the “door” might become the “doe.”

Enslaved people were challenged with certain phonetic sounds, such as the “SK” sound, 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 by uneducated people, including indentured servants, who enslaved Black people in America and worked alongside and learned English from.[2].

Consider all the above when thinking about those same phrases being passed down from generation to generation.

Some enslaved people learned 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 did you not know it was possible?

Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that all speech is correct, but we should think before making those statements.

Think about it: “Would you say, “he is so articulate,” or “she speaks so well” to anyone?

The misunderstandings 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.

Here is what happened:  A group of social services agency staff workers believed the Spanish-speaking social workers took too long to complete reports, so they were experiencing a slow flow of paperwork.

As the team filed into the meeting room, it was apparent there was a lot of tension. Finally, the session started, but before I could get to slide three of my presentation, one of the social workers (let’s 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 discussing 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 Spanish-speaking social workers. Then, when she was done, a Spanish-speaking social worker (let’s call her Maria) said, “it probably feels delayed when you ask questions, and it takes us a few minutes to respond. Wouldn’t you agree, Mary? Mary let out a huge sigh and said, “Yes, it does!”

Maria asked Mary if she was aware that English was her second language. The response she received was, “What difference does that make?” Maria explained that when asked a question in English, she has to translate the questions to her native tongue and make sure she understands before responding.

When visiting clients, she has to do something similar. Since her clients are Spanish-speaking, Maria must read the question from the report, make sure she understands it, and then translate the question to Spanish, making sure she is clear in her translation. Then she translates the response into English to record in the report. This process continued throughout the report and with each client, she visited.

Sometimes Maria would record their responses in Spanish to save the client time. She would then complete the translations in the office. So, Martha says, I can see where there could be a delay. 

Maria then asked Mary when the reports were due. The reports are due on the 15th of the month, Mary responded. Maria said OK, when are the reports from the Spanish-speaking social workers submitted to your department? Mary said the 15th, BUT everyone else has their reports in by the 9th or 10th of the month. So, Maria turned to the manager and asked if it was possible to move the reporting deadline to the 16th to provide the needed time for translation.

BUT Mary realized that the problem was with her “perception” and said, ” I am sorry, we can leave the date as it stands. Why? Because Mary realized she became frustrated because of her “unconscious bias.” 

You see, Mary believed that Spanish-speaking people were always late.

The new information helped Mary to change her perception.

The moral of both stories is the same. Everyone is different. We owe every team member the opportunity to be a person coming to the table with what they have and not needing to fight past unconscious bias or untrue perceptions 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

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