What Policing Can Teach Us About Unconscious Bias

A lot of my friends on Facebook have been posting about Ferguson over the past week. My instinct has been to think I don’t have that much to add beyond what’s already been said more eloquently by others. I’ve also been nervous about adding my voice to the mix. I’m not American, I’ve never been to Missouri, and even though everyone can mourn the tragedy of a lost life, I know that I don’t fully understand the complex history that’s led up to what’s going on in the US right now and what Ferguson represents.

What’s struck me about the friends who have posted on Facebook, and the classmates at Sloan who came to the packed lunch discussion today on Ferguson, was the wide range of people who care about this issue. People seem to be connecting what happened in Ferguson to broader patterns – both to broader patterns of racism in America, and maybe also to patterns of marginalization of other groups and in other places. Understanding what these patterns are and why events like Ferguson continue to happen feels important.

Last May, Elena Mendez recruited me to help plan an event at Sloan on unconscious bias. The event grew into a conference, and the conference grew into a four-month long initiative. Our team of two grew into a team of more than fifty. Virtually every event the team has organized this fall has been packed. I’ve been amazed by how much Sloan students care.

Among the many complex factors that led to what happened in Ferguson, the unconscious associations that many of us have between young black men and danger seems to have played a role. It’s incredibly frustrating to think that we can fight to make institutions more equal, and that we might think we’re treating everyone around us fairly, but that our unconscious associations can still lead us behave in ways that don’t fit with our values. How can we deal with biases that we aren’t even aware of?

Elena read an article about the danger of unconscious bias in policing that mentioned an organization called Fair and Impartial Policing, which trains police forces across the US in dealing with unconscious bias. In policing, snap decisions can literally mean the difference between life and death. In the corporate world, the many small decisions that we make every day may not seem important, but over time they lead to dramatic differences in career and life outcomes.

Elena reached out to Fair and Impartial Policing to ask if they could use their expertise to train us in how to tackle our unconscious biases. What can we do as individuals to make sure our behavior is consistent with our values? How can we set up our organizations to be as fair as possible?

They not only agreed to come, but offered to create a tailor-made training specifically for us, taking what they do for the police and translating those skills and approaches into the corporate world.

I don’t think unconscious bias was the only factor at play in Ferguson, but I think it was a part of the story, and learning how to deal with unconscious bias is my small way of trying to take a step in the right direction – not the only step, and not a big enough step to stop another Ferguson from happening, but still a step.

I’ve been amazed by the number of people at Sloan who seem to feel the same way. More than half of the tickets for the conference, which will include the training by Fair and Impartial Policing, are already gone. People who have signed up in these first few weeks have included men and women, students and faculty, local professionals and prospective students.

Unconscious bias isn’t the only issue I see when I read about Ferguson, but it’s something that I think is important, and that we can and should be working hard to address. Thank you Elena Mendez, the Breaking the Mold team and my classmates at Sloan for letting me be a part of doing something about it.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post. I’m thrilled by the great advocacy and education work being done this year by Sloan students. You show what it means to be OneMIT Together. Whether we are from the US, and regardless of our race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation, salary or position, we all are responsible for our community, and we all have the means to improve it. I applaud your leadership in doing so.

  2. Maria, you and Elena have done a fabulous job of raising consciousness about unconscious bias at Sloan and more broadly at the Institute this year. Like Ed Bertschinger, I am thrilled to see it.

  3. Harriet Barnett

    Maria,

    What a lucid and timely post!

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