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Implicit Bias, the Hidden Enemy to Diversity Featured

Implicit Bias, the Hidden Enemy to Diversity Elizeu Dias

One thing that I have to deal with as a Black man on a board or in an executive environment is the exhausting exercise of navigating the current of norms and behaviors of the group. Even when boards recruit a “diverse” candidate who looks and thinks differently than the group, it is exhausting for that individual to speak from another mindset. Majority-culture boards tend to isolate the new thoughts of the diverse board member and label them, which is why so many people from diverse backgrounds may choose not to serve on these boards.

This poignant narrative told to me by a highly accomplished executive cuts through the fog to the heart of the issue of implicit bias—acting out prejudices and stereotypes without being conscious of them.

From our earliest years, we learn how to make sense of the world, how to be safe, and how to fit in.  Over time we gradually take on the characteristics and norms and beliefs of the social group with which we identify—many of which are generational. Within these norms are embedded layers of latent prejudices.

Implicit bias is difficult to see in ourselves. It takes courage to listen to others when they call out evidence of it in our lives. But to move forward into a diverse, inclusive, and equitable environment, we all must shine a bright light on our behaviors and make changes when what we do isn’t consistent with what is just; or when we recognize it is hurtful and unfair.

Harvard offers a wonderful online tool to check biases. It is called Project Implicit, https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html. You can take several exercises to gauge whether you are holding unconscious biases that are affecting your judgment. There are exercises to test bias in regard to all sorts of categories: Native American, Transgender, Asian, people with disabilities, older Americans, and more.

In these times, wherein we struggle to achieve diversity, inclusion, and equity, I recommend these exercises for every nonprofit executive. When you get your results, assume the answers are a true reflection—even if you feel uncomfortable. Then ask yourself, what might be influencing my way of thinking? Where might I have blind spots? What might I do differently or better? Self-assessment is challenging and, maybe even a bit painful, but when we engage in it honestly, we become better people.

If we are going to eradicate implicit bias from our nonprofits, we cannot stop with just personal reflection. Make this a topic for deep, engaged discussion throughout your organization. Bringing these issues into the daylight of open, honest, and receptive conversation offers the greatest promise for change. Reach out to professionals who can help carry the conversation further. There are a number of professionals well-versed in this issue who can guide such a discussion.

The courage to hold yourself accountable will make you a better leader, and equip your nonprofit to do the greatest good for the diverse community you serve.


James Mueller is a nationally recognized nonprofit authority, President of James Mueller & Associates, and author of the new book Onboarding Champions: The Seven Recruiting Principles of Highly Effective Nonprofit Boards.

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