I recently flew from Washington, DC, to Detroit to attend a family event that coincided with the Michigan–Ohio State (OSU) football game hosted in Ann Arbor. The plane was a sea of Michigan yellow and blue mixed with Ohio State’s scarlet and gray. I found myself sensing camaraderie with the Michigan fans, clapping when someone chanted, “Go Blue!” and giving a side-eye to the OSU fans when they started chanting in return, “OH-IO!”
As a Michigan alum and lifelong Wolverine fan, the simple visual of someone with a yellow and blue M on their clothing gives me a warm jolt of positive energy in my chest, bringing about a flood of memories of autumn days tailgating in Ann Arbor with friends and family. When I see this logo, I assign positive attributes to Michigan people.
Why Do We Automatically Assign People to “Us” or “Them”?These little physical jolts of positive or negative energy happen to all of us, maybe not related to an alma mater but possibly because of an age group, accent, geographic background, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, political ideology, special interest, and numerous other dimensions of identity. Our basic human instinct to assign ourselves and others into categories of “us” and “them” is so deeply woven into our brains that we are often unaware of how they influence our perceptions, our interpretations of others’ behaviors, and our decisions.
Consider your gut reaction when you encounter someone wearing or not wearing a face mask in public. Are you feeling trust and kinship? Suspicion? Anger? Condescension? Pity? Unease about what that person may be thinking about your choice?
We see this scenario playing out on the national stage, yet our automatic associations are often more subtle and deeply buried. Our brains are trained to recognize patterns based on previous messages and experiences. So if I have been conditioned to assign trust, compassion, and generosity toward a particular social identity group, I will be inclined to respond positively when I meet someone from that group, even if I know nothing more about them.
These automatic associations and biases are present in the minds of training professionals and diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practitioners. We are not immune to our brain’s natural tendency to categorize and label into “us” and “them.”
What Might This Look Like in Training and What Is the Impact?Finding commonalities can be powerful for building a connection with others. However, even positive biases can be potentially harmful for trainers. We may overestimate the similarities we share with a person, or we may project our own experiences, values, and beliefs on someone who has a different story, even if we do have something in common.
As a trainer, I need to consider which participants I may offer some additional encouragement or attention to because we share a common identity dimension. I may, for example, feel a kinship with women of my age who have children like I do. There is nothing wrong with this affinity, but I need to be conscious that I:
- Don’t assume similarity in values, beliefs, or life experiences because we share that dimension of identity. My experience as a mother is different from that of a mother of a child with a disability, or a mother of a Black son, or a single mother, or an immigrant mother with children born in the US. Although we may share some common experiences, our interests, fears, worries, and expectations for our children are not universal just because we share the identity of motherhood.
- Don’t give an overabundance of positive attention to people of my identity group, which may send signals to other participants that their experiences or ideas are less important or valid to me. I may unconsciously engage in more microaffirmations with people who are like me, encouraging their participation, calling on them more frequently, and agreeing with their views.
Similarly, I need to be conscious of those identity dimensions I may have been conditioned to perceive as the “other.” I may be inclined to give that person less attention or warmth or to close my curiosity to their story, and in doing so I will miss out on recognizing their fullness as a human.
For example, I was conducting DEI training for a group that consisted largely of middle-aged white men with military backgrounds. Throughout the training, one of the participants was particularly quiet, arms crossed and frowning, with a slight upturn of the lip that I took to be a sneer of contempt. I found myself frustrated by what I perceived from him as disdain for the work we were doing. I lost my curiosity. I stopped making eye contact with him. I offered attention and encouragement to other participants and largely ignored him.
When he finally spoke up toward the end of the training, he shared a story, describing a childhood marked by poverty, instability, and violence. He enlisted in the military and found his home, a place where others cared about his safety and trusted him with their lives. He got married, started a family, and devoted himself fully to giving them the life he never had. He was deeply religious, faithful to his loved ones, and proud of serving his country. I realized that even as I was instructing the group to challenge stereotypes, I had reduced this man to a single story, without trying to understand the complex human he actually was. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie eloquently captures this phenomenon: “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
What Can You Do As a Trainer to Check Your Biases?Knowing that we all bring biases with us into every situation, ask yourself these questions when you’re preparing for a training:
- What messages have I received in my life that may have influenced my perceptions?
- What identity groups do I have the most exposure to?
- What identities do I have the least exposure to? How does that lack of exposure impact my understanding of their customs, behaviors, and experiences?
- How can I check for blind spots?
In the training space, check in with yourself often, especially if you experience an emotional reaction to someone. Here are some questions to consider:
· What am I reacting to? What specifically did I see or hear?
· How am I interpreting what I saw or heard? Why am I interpreting it that way?
· What other parts of the story could I be missing?
· How can I turn this into a learning opportunity for myself and the group?
DEI training is intensely challenging because we all need to check ourselves and our blind spots. It requires courage, humility, and curiosity. When we can model the process of suspending our own assumptions and managing our biases, we earn trust with our learners, gain new knowledge, and more fully acknowledge one another’s humanity.
Good to know that I'm not alone.