Most of us have been conditioned over the balance of our lives to see discrimination as an act of commission and not omission. Did I utter a racial slur? Did I burn down a church? Did I commit a hate crime? While these kinds of incidents do occur, they are not the norm. They are the exception.
Modern discrimination is rooted in unconscious bias-acts of omission. This kind of discrimination happens much more often than overt discrimination. If you think hard enough, you could probably recall some instances where you witnessed modern discrimination.
• You may have a neighbor who gives away season tickets to sporting events to neighbors who have been in the neighborhood a long time despite promising you as a newcomer to the neighborhood the same opportunity that has gone unrealized.
• As a teetotaler in the office, you don’t receive as many invitations to social events as colleagues who drink alcohol.
• Your friend gives you a heads up about a job opening prior to the announcement hitting the street.
• The people responsible for the September 11 attacks were called “Muslim terrorists” while the men responsible for the 1985 Oklahoma City bombing were referred to as “Christian males.”
• As a supervisor, you interviewed two equally qualified candidates but offered the job to the applicant that shook your hand the hardest.
• At your favorite fast food restaurant, you position yourself in line for the server who speaks fluent English and you avoid the server who has an Asian accent.
What do most of the above examples have in common? We give preferential treatment to people who are part of our “in-group.” We favor people who talk like us, act like us and look like us. Modern discrimination is less about treating other people badly and more about showing preference to people in our in-group.
I had a friend who worked in an emergency room and she indicated she saw bias in the way people were treated for their medical problems on a daily basis. She told the story about a professor who came into the emergency ward with a deep cut on her hand. No one knew the woman was a professor. They were getting ready to treat the professor’s wound when the professor told the medical staff the name of the elite school where she was a member of the faculty. Upon hearing this new revelation, the medical team began giving her references to other prestigious hospitals and doctors that she may want to contact that specialize in therapy for serious hand wounds.
One of my former bosses received a call from a publication who wanted an interview. I knew my supervisor hated this media outlet and expected the conversation to be a short one. Then I overheard the caller say they graduated from the same college as my boss. Two minutes later, my boss agreed to the interview.
We will never break the habit of gravitating toward people in our in-group when it comes to giving them a helping hand. We have to start making a conscious effort to help people who belong to our out-group. If not, an inclusive world where everyone meets their full potential will remain a luxury for those lucky enough to sit in the front row and a fleeting reality for those of us who sit in the balcony.