Some people openly display prejudice. More commonly however, people act without realizing the implications of their actions or the unconscious biases they are displaying. People can genuinely feel strongly about empowerment, but commit a host of behaviors that are counter-productive or encourage discrimination and not realize it.

An unconscious bias is an unquestioned or automatic assumption about an individual, usually based on positive or negative traits is associated with a group they belong to, that prevents them from treating them as an individual. Stereotyping on the other hand is over simplifying and assuming excessive similarities about a group of people. Unconscious bias has more to do with how thought influences actions, even in very subtle ways, whereas stereotyping might be in your head, said as a joke, or only when certain people are not around. Also, people often do not realize they are making an assumption that has influenced their actions (unconscious bias)- at least until after the fact- whereas, most of the time, people know when they are communicating that an individual has the same traits as a group (stereotype).

Problematically, we often look for the stereotypes we believe (at some level) are true when we meet someone from that population. This can create a “self-fulfilling prophesy” because humans are good at finding what they are looking for. For example, if someone believes gay men are more feminine they will be more likely to notice when an individual gay man does something feminine than if they were straight, thus they find evidence to support the stereotype. Stereotypes can have a grain of truth when one looks at an entire population, but are virtually never all true for a specific individual.

For example, people often try to help or include LGBTA individuals in ways they would not have if the person had been heterosexual which can show their bias, alienate the individual, and/or create future roadblocks. Still others can make jokes, which may or may not be hurtful, but still encourage the continuation of stereotypes. Another example might be assuming a preference or skill the person has shown no signs of possessing, but is stereotypical of the LGBTA community (like have a good sense of fashion). These might be positive or negative and are often done with good intentions, but they are still treating people differently based on non-verifiable assumptions.

Sometimes people are visibly uncomfortable, but claim to be completely comfortable, belittling the insights and intelligence of those around them.

The problem with unconscious bias is that WE ALL HAVE unconscious bias (even LGBTA individuals), and learning to overcome them is often a gradual and difficult process. Clearly, some people have more obvious ones and some are more destructive than others, but the fact remains that when someone says “LGBT individuals” certain thoughts, personality traits, and connotations come to mind for EVERYONE. Even though different people have different connotations, we all have them.

Common barriers to overcoming unconscious bias are defensiveness and displacement. Defensiveness occurs when someone feels the need to defend their actions- usually because they feel attacked and fear the feedback is valid- instead of listening to the feedback and honestly evaluating if it is true. In basic terms, defensiveness happens when someone is more compelled to defend their actions then question them. Defensiveness happens almost instantaneously and people can genuinely feel like they are trying to explain.

Displacement is when someone places the blame on something other than themselves for their actions. Common examples of displacement surrounding LGBT issues would be to blame something from TV (typically sitcoms or the news), claim other people do the same thing, a traumatic instance in their past, or even the group of having the trait. When it comes to displacement, the problem is not whether or not they got the idea from somewhere else, it is that they acted on it inappropriately.

It can be hard to point out- or fully explain once you have pointed it out- to individuals that something they did could be thought of as offensive or unethical. Often times, people do not want to lose face or realize that their actions problematic. Sometimes changing a behavior requires examining multiple assumptions and/or changing a variety of behaviors. It is hard to experience something from someone else’s point of view, but that does not prevent people from getting to know and treating fairly the individuals from other groups.

The specific biases we act on might seem more positive or negative, subtle or overt, simple or complex, but, when in the workplace, the LGBTA Council strongly believes people should be judged based on their individual merits instead of the specific groups they belong to, which has virtually nothing to do with how well they do their job!

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