For public information officers and anyone who interacts with the public, effective communication can hinge on your words and actions, and how they can help or hurt the job you’re trying to do in your community. Dr. Adrienne Coleman is a 20-year-plus expert in diversity, equity and inclusion issues. She joined me on the PAST Fusion Cell News Line to discuss implicit and explicit bias and why you need to embrace it in the workplace: “Implicit bias is an unconscious sort of bias. It refers to the attitudes and stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner. It is a mental process that causes us to have negative feelings and attitudes about people based on characteristics like race, ethnicity, age and appearance. Explicit bias is on the very conscious level. It refers to the attitudes and beliefs we have about people or a group of people on a conscious level. Much of the time these biases and their expression arise as a direct result of a perceived threat. When people feel threatened, they are more likely to draw group boundaries to distinguish themselves from others.”
As Dr. Coleman explained to me, the roots of bias evolve from how we have been socialized and conditioned to think about different groups. The evolution of explicit bias continues to grow from positive and negative messaging about groups of people, from sources like your parents, friends, online platforms and the news media: “The important thing to interrupt bias from happening is acknowledging that it exists, understanding the root cause, understanding how you have been socialized, and putting yourself in situations to learn more and change.” Public information officers are not immune from bias in their communications to the public, be it conscious or unconscious. As Dr. Coleman puts it: “We have to be mindful of the stories we are telling and are we even telling the complete story? Are we telling the truth and whose truth is it? Are we contributing to the marginalization of those who have been oppressed because we are telling their story through our biased lens? Those are things you need to consider when you are doing this work, when you are communicating with your community.”
Dr. Coleman brought up an example that can help us identify even unconsciously the bias we may be putting into our communication. She pointed to two Hurricane Katrina news headlines and photos that were displayed for millions. Both were about the victims of the horrible devastation: “One story was about a black male. The story read that a young male walked through chest deep floodwater after looting a grocery store in New Orleans. Then, the same news organization put up a picture of white man and woman and that story read that two residents waded through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda. What this news organization did was criminalize the black man and made survivors of the white man and white woman. Even though all three were victims of a natural, horrific disaster, the media presented the stories in different ways. The more and more a person hears and sees these different stories and messages, they could begin to think negatively about different groups of people. In this particular instance, you will think more negatively about black men and more positively about white men and women.”
While Dr. Coleman has been talking about these issues for more than 20 years, she believes there is now a heightened awareness of systemic oppression, adding that it’s not too late for anyone to turn their backs on bias. She thinks we all have to do personal assessment homework, which includes to doubt your objectivity, review your decisions, question your assumptions and first impressions, and ask yourself if your decision would be different if it involved a person from another social identity group. In addition to being a published author, speaker and expert on diversity, equity and inclusion issues, Dr. Adrienne Coleman is the CEO of Candid Conversations Matter. This link will get you more information about her work. Click on the Mp3 below to listen to my full Flash Briefing interview with Dr. Coleman and to read previous Flash Briefings.