More About Unconscious Bias – A Guest Blog by John Luecke

Guest Blogger Intercultural Communications Trainer and Consultant John Luecke

About the Contributor: John Luecke, who serves as a long-time Raleigh Sister Cities volunteer with me, is an Intercultural Communication Trainer and Consultant. For more information:

Introduction: Last month, I published a very widely read blog receiving a tremendous number of hits. In “Seven Biases in the Workplace – Let’s Be Brutally Honest About It,” I challenge us all to be brutally honest about unconscious biases that can pop into our heads about the diverse co-workers we interact with, and to address it with action. Admittedly, it was a fairly rudimentary blog introducing this concept.

Intercultural Communications Trainer and Consultant, John Luecke, with whom I serve as a Raleigh Sister Cities volunteer, agreed to write a guest blog going much deeper into this important issue. Thank you, John!

John writes: Last month’s blog post identified lots of typical workplace biases, but the solution is much more complicated than just becoming aware of them and then resisting the urge to enact your biases.

After all, unconscious biases are just that – unconscious. We’re generally not aware of them, thus making it hard to correct something we don’t see in ourselves. There are relatively objective ways of assessing our unconscious biases — the Implicit Attitude Test or IAT, for example. It’s a free, self-administered online test that helps identify unconscious bias. You can take the test here

When I took it for potential biases toward black people and Muslims, the IAT told me that I had a “strong preference for white people.” A bit of a shock, but it didn’t call me a bigot or suggest I engaged in prejudicial actions against blacks, just that I preferred white people. Given my limited exposure to black people, this should not have been a surprise. I fared much better with Muslims, but then I’ve spent a lot of time studying Islam, Middle Eastern culture and have several Muslim friends.

For better or worse unconscious biases provide value; for example, they kept our ancestors alive when threatened by sabre tooth tigers or the warriors from the other side of the mountain. Today they continue to alert us to perceived threats and dangers.

Here’s how they work: When we see something as threatening, dangerous, or fearful our amygdala kicks in and floods our bodies with cortisol and testosterone – two hormones that allow us to quickly respond to dangers. The amygdala is a walnut-shaped structure that sits at the base of our brains and processes incoming signals. The result is a fight-flight or freeze response to danger, and it’s kept our species alive for thousands of years. The amygdala typically takes between 80 and 200 milliseconds to respond, and it shuts down our brain’s communication with our prefrontal cortex – that’s where reasonable thinking takes place.

If we can find a few seconds of stillness to let our prefrontal cortex become engaged, we can have a much more reasoned response to a perceived threat. However, if someone is coming after you with a big knife, go with the fight or flight response and let your prefrontal cortex sort things out later.

But for the kinds of perceptual threats we’re likely to encounter in the workplace – our biased reactions to the overweight employee, the millennial, the older employee — find that moment of stillness and let your reason take over from your amygdala.

Unconscious biases are part of the hard wiring of our brains. Incidentally, our brains consume approximately 20 percent of our bodies’ energy. By establishing unconscious biases, or brains conserve energy and make lots of automatic decisions. Some research suggests that up to 98 percent of what’s going on in our brains happens at an unconscious level. Problems occur when our brains make unconscious decisions about people, especially those decisions that disadvantage some people and prevent us from forming productive relationships with them.

There are lots of ways of dealing with unconscious bias beyond simply recognizing it in ourselves. One of the easiest is regular meditation – any kind of mediation. You don’t have to spend two years in a Tibetan cave, but 15 to 20 minutes a day of meditation can slow the response of your amygdala and provide time for your prefrontal cortex to engage. This includes such techniques as breath mediation, walking meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, etc. Meditation is only one of the many tools we can use to reduce our unconscious biases.

An awesome global collaboration – Kenyan art in Raleigh, NC!

All four of Leah Odero's paintings grouped together at the art exhibit

All four of Leah Odero’s paintings grouped together at the art exhibit

IMPORTANT NOTE: The four paintings will be on display at the December 17th Jamhuri Day Celebration (Sertomoa Art Center Raleigh 5-11PM) coordinated by Raleigh’s Kenyan community and Raleigh Sister Cities. They can be purchased, and we will be having a raffle for one and an auction for another. Link for more information on the Jamhuri Day Celebration.

All paintings are approx. 22 inches by 32 inches

* * * *

I have some exciting news to share. As many of you know, I have been involved in community development work in Kenya. You can link here for a short summary of how I got involved in this work, and you can also read my progressive updates about ongoing progress. I posted extensive updates with photos and a video in May and January. Though my partnership with the people of the city of Mtito Andei was announced over five years ago, the work has really taken off since teaming with my new trusted partner and now my pastor (yes, I belong to a progressive open church in Kenya) Rev. Michael Kimindu of Neema Metropolitan Community Church, Mtito Andei, Kenya.

Also about four years ago, I was delighted as a long-time resident of Raleigh, NC, when Raleigh Sister Cities announced its fifth sister city – Nairobi, Kenya. (Use this link to read more about what Sister Cities International is about.) What a wonderful coincidence that confirmed that my focus on Kenya was well chosen. I got involved with the Nairobi sister city committee and then last year the Raleigh City Council appointed me to the Raleigh Sister Cities (link) board of directors.

And in 2016, Raleigh Sister Cities is celebrating our 30th anniversary with a full year of ongoing activities. One of those is an art exhibit with art from the sister cities on exhibition through July at the Betty Ray McCain Art Gallery at the Duke Energy Center for Performing Arts in Raleigh. (See gallery information at the bottom of this blog below all the photos.)

Hearding by Leah Odero

Hearding by Leah Odero

The exhibit features 51 works created by 17 artists from Raleigh’s sister cities in Nairobi, Kenya, Rostock, Germany, Kingston-upon-Hull, UK; and Compiegne, France. The exhibited works were selected from 135 submissions by co-curators, Lee Hansley, proprietor of Lee Hansley Galleries in Raleigh, and Melissa Peden, a Raleigh art consultant.

When the Nairobi committee was having problems securing suitable art, I sent an urgent message to my community development partner and pastor in Kenya, Michael Kimindu, and through his connections he introduced me to a talented young artist in Nairobi, Leah Odero. She sent me photographs of her paintings, and four were selected for the exhibition. I and my business (Total Engagement Consulting by Kimer) sponsored the shipping of the artwork from Kenya to the USA.

I and my business are delighted to be one of the exhibit's sponsors

I and my business are delighted to be one of the exhibit’s sponsors

On June 3, I was given a private tour of gallery since I was not able to attend the opening, and including in this update are several wonderful photos. Also, all four pieces of Leah’s art are for sale, and it would great to sell them and send Leah the cash instead of shipping the art back to her. You can email, [email protected], for info and pricing, and the art can be yours after the exhibition ends later in July!

I am so pleased at how this international collaboration has worked so well and how special gifts like art that enrich all our lives can be shared globally.
Group 1
Group 2A
Group 3
The Betty Ray McCain Art Gallery is in the lobby of the Meymandi Concert Hall at Raleigh’s Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. The gallery is open prior and during events at the Meymandi Concert Hall. Link to events schedule.