Unionists waking up to bias

ACUTE training
About 50 union and non-profit staff attend a May 12 training on Microaggressions and Implicit Bias (Photo by David Jacobo, used with permission.)

By Don McIntosh, associate editor

I’m racially biased. Or at least the Harvard Implicit Bias test says I am. In the conscious part of the test, I was asked questions like whether I think blacks and whites are equally worthy, and I said yes. But I flunked the subconscious part of the test. Basically it measures your reaction time when you’re asked to associate black or white faces with negative or positive words. Take the test yourself here. You may be surprised, and possibly disturbed. Like many other white people, I had a measurably faster reaction time when the association was between a black face and a negative word. And I’m not happy about that.

For me, the test was preparation for a day-long training for union staff led by Barbara Diamond, a Portland labor lawyer who’s won countless cases for unions over the years. Since 2014, she has made a series of short films and organized a dozen trainings for union staff or legal professionals.

The films and trainings aren’t just about race. They look at attitudes about gender and sexual orientation, perceived foreign-ness, and physical and mental disability. If they make participants uncomfortable, that may be because we’ve all got work to do.

Race might be the clearest example. In our society, a résumé with a black-sounding name is 50 percent less likely to get a call back from an employer,  black drivers are twice as likely to be pulled over by police, black men are six times as likely to be incarcerated, and pediatricians are less likely to prescribe pain-killers to black children. And it may be that none of the individual decisions that contribute to those disparate results were made by people who were consciously racist.

That’s where the “implicit bias” theory comes in. According to the theory, unconscious racial preferences like mine are producing real-world disparate impacts. And if that’s true, then just outlawing obvious racial discrimination isn’t going to be enough to achieve the equitable society that most of us say we want.

In her films, Diamond interviews union members about their experiences of “microaggressions.” Microaggressions are mostly unintentional slights,  snubs, or insults directed at people based on their membership in a disenfranchised group.  For example, a black person will hear, “I don’t see you as black,” and that’s supposed to be a compliment. Or a native Oregonian with Asian features might be told she speaks very good English.

The May 12 training I attended got very emotional at times for the dozens of union staff who attended. Some white union staff members said they felt guilty, or thought that they were supposed to feel guilty.

“I think it’s normal for people who are diving into this stuff to feel a moment of guilt,” Diamond told me afterward, “because you realize, ‘I have unearned privilege, and I’ve had an easier time with my life.’ The problem with guilt is if you’re stuck there, you’re looking at yourself. You’re thinking about your own feelings, when what you really need to be thinking about is the affect of your actions and how you can show up to change things.”

“I walked away from the training thinking maybe I can be a little more conscientious, so I don’t inadvertently make someone feel uncomfortable,” says UFCW Local 555 representative Sam Gillispie.“As union reps, if we can make one individual less uncomfortable by our awareness and sensitivity, that’s a good thing.”

MORE: A Q&A with anti-bias trainer Barbara Diamond about microaggressions and implicit bias

MORE: Trailers for Barbara Diamond’s films on race, gender, and disability.

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