Module 1: Creating Intercultural Awareness and Understanding Attitudes

Overcoming Biases

Peanut butter sandwich on a wooden plate.

Throughout our lives, we are constantly influenced by people (e.g., friends, family, peers, teachers, co-workers), traditional media (e.g., films, news, TV shows), social media (e.g., Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram), and single/multiple experiences of our own. Our brains are constantly absorbing all the information around us and categorizing it, creating associations that we automatically rely on. For example, when many people in North America hear “peanut butter and…” the immediate association is “jam,” as this has been part of their background.

In a similar way, our brain creates associations of people and actions or descriptions based on the input around us. This is how this annoying wiring of our brains stores links about all the information we process. Any links we create between people from different backgrounds based on what we hear, read, or see in relation to, for instance, a White woman, an Indigenous person, a South African national, a Scandinavian man, or a Vietnamese grandmother are then translated into biases, affecting the way we act, react, and the attitudes we develop toward other people.

Bias is an unsupported judgement—an automatic association in our brain that demonstrates underlying attitudes in favour or against other people. It happens outside our conscious awareness and affects how we relate to and react to others.

In other words, we all have biases, but most of the time, we are not aware of them. Taking time to understand the bias we hold about other people—those immediate associations our brain makes when we see, think about, or meet cultural others—can help us change our attitudes and what influences our decisions. The key is to be aware of what they are and to avoid relying on them. Remember: You cannot control your bias, but you can control your reaction.

Activity: Overcoming our Biases

  1. Watch this TED talk by Verna Myers on “How to overcome our biases” (17’39”). You are encouraged to take notes that you can later come back to for your reference, but if you prefer, concentrate on watching and listening actively.
  2. To follow up on what you just watched, check your overall understanding by answering the following true/false questions.

Think About This

  • From your perspective, what were the most important takeaways from the video?
  • How does any of this apply to your own experience? For example, if you are/are not a racialized person, what does this encourage you to do?
  • How does this help you develop different attitudes and an appreciation for other cultures?

Activity: Implicit Bias Self-Assessment

In their talk, Myers mentions the Implicit Association Test (IAT).

  1. Take the Implicit Association Test; it is freely available on the site. Follow the link and click on demonstration tests. After reading the preliminary information, proceed when ready and select the test on “Race. 
  2. Once you obtain your results, take a moment to think about what they mean.
    • Are you surprised by the results?
    • Why do you think you obtained those results?
    • What does this say about your biases?

Stereotypes and bias can have a deep impact on racialized groups because they perpetuate an inaccurate representation of a group without taking into consideration the individual, the context, and their experience. Ignoring the need to understand cultural others while relying on bias and stereotypes can have a detrimental effect on society because bias and stereotypes can, in fact, lead to discrimination. How does this happen?

It starts with an inaccurate belief: an imprecise idea of a group based on a single observation (stereotype). Once this belief is in our minds, our brain will create associations based on that observation (bias), which in turn will come into our minds when we see or hear about someone from a given cultural group. At this point, an idea has lodged into our minds that will affect how we perceive another group, how we relate to them, and the potential decisions we may make that can affect that group.

If stereotypes and bias are not challenged, we will continue to be prejudiced towards others, and that prejudice will ultimately continue to benefit some members of the society (the dominant group) while stigmatizing others. What follows is a series of actions that are based on prejudice. That is, discrimination based on race, place of origin, accent (or other factors) that impede advancement, promotion, access, and equal treatment. In other words, those actions become obstacles to achieve equity. What starts with an inaccurate idea or belief turns into an attitude or behaviour, resulting in actions referred to as discrimination.

What can you do? Be intentional about deconstructing stereotypes and avoid relying on them. Check your own biases, do not let them guide your actions, and take time to make relations with people from other cultural groups. This will help you gain an understanding of their perspectives and have a more accurate idea of their cultural makeup and experiences.

Think About This

Have you ever been a victim of discrimination?

Can you think of examples in past or recent events where a person or group was discriminated against based on stereotypes, bias, preconceptions, or prejudice?

Keep that example of a situation in mind and use the following questions to guide your reflection.

For the situation you’ve identified, reflect on these questions:

  • What happened?
  • Why were they discriminated against?
  • Has that stopped?
  • Why or why not?
  • What are you doing or what can you do to stop the cycle of relying on inaccurate assumptions turning into prejudice?

TakeAway Points

  • Each one of us is biased. Being biased does not mean you are a bad person because our brains are continuously creating associations based on information around us.
  • Becoming more aware of your biases and identifying them will help you avoid relying on them. Take a pause, focus on the person, not on categories. Before you assume, ask.
  • You cannot control your biases, but you can control your reactions and attitudes.
  • It is crucial to keep our own and others’ biases in check to prevent them from turning into prejudice and discrimination.

Try These Strategies

Try these strategies based on the three suggestions in Vera Myers’ TED talk:

  1. Since there is no point denying we are biased, learn to recognize your biases. They may show up when we are in a troublesome or risky situation. Look for disconfirming data that proves your bias and stereotypes are wrong. Do not try to be colour blind; acknowledge and embrace difference by engaging more with cultural others.
  2. Move towards people in a group from which you tend to keep your distance. Reach out, have a conversation, be more conscious and intentional about it, and make connections. It is okay to walk towards discomfort and go against stereotypes. Doing so will help you build relationships with people who are, in essence, different from you; this will help you stop being a bystander and become someone with more intercultural experience: an actor, advocate, or ally.
  3. Keep in mind that people may be good, but what they say may be wrong. If you witness discrimination, try to say something, even if it is to someone you love. Break the vicious cycle that perpetuates negative attitudes from one generation to another. Doing this can help you be part of the force of change in society.