by Bert Vercamer, Chief Program Innovation and Educational Products Officer at AFS Intercultural Programs

The case where two African-American men got arrested at a Starbucks in Philadelphia mid-April is one of many examples of how racism, sexism, and other -isms may be less explicit these days. One uses terms such as implicit bias and unconscious bias to describe the psychology and behaviour of the one who causes the ‘-ism’ to happen to others. Another term is micro-aggressions, referring to the outcomes to those who receive the ‘-ism’. However, these outcomes certainly aren’t ‘micro’, as they can lead to, at minimum, emotional distress, general unsafety, harassment, arrests – as in this case – and even death.

A few years ago, a friend had invited me to attend a casual goodbye party for the French ambassador in Kenya, who I hadn’t met before. I had arrived late, and when walking into the room, I realized that I knew most of the people, except for two, or three, people. I walked over to the buffet to grab some food and addressed the only man in the room I didn’t know: “You must be the French ambassador.” To which he elegantly responded: “Oh, you must mean my wife over there.” I embarrassingly mumbled something like ‘What a faux-pas, my apologies,” and realized that I just exposed my own male implicit bias.

This situation was settled lightheartedly – and I got to use the word faux-pas – though I wasn’t off the hook in exploring how I can prevent this to happen in the future. These are four things that you can do to prevent this from happening to you:

1. It all starts with awareness.

Check with yourself what stereotypes you hold over other people. If you are comfortable, discuss this with people who know you well: What are those stereotypes. What examples do you know yourself that show that those stereotypes aren’t true. How come you hold on to them? This learning document can help you.

2. Practice.

AFS Intercultural Programs has a great exercise that is called D.I.V.E., for ‘Describe-Interpret-Verify-Evaluate’. Implicit bias leads to immediately ‘evaluate’ a situation, unfortunately mostly negatively. What we do is that we use our bias – often based on stereotypes – towards a person of color, a female, a person from a different religion, etc. to jump to evaluations that are negative towards the other person, and we act on that through what we say or do. We might not realize that we have that bias – it’s called unconscious for a reason – and try to rationalize it. Therefore, the D.I.V.E. exercise helps to slow down our own thought process and to first describe what is happening in objective terms, to then allow for different interpretations. AFS recommends to push yourself to find three possible interpretations. After that, we should verify, maybe with someone else, maybe by searching it online, digging deeper into our own knowledge. Finally, you can make more educated evaluations. If that process sounds a bit cumbersome, once you train yourself on this, it can happen in seconds. Try it out. If you are a teacher, you can also use this version for your classroom.

3. Seek out difference around you.

Once you are more aware, and have a tool such as the DIVE exercise under your belt, try seeking more difference around you, through friends, community-based organizations, sports clubs. Volunteering is a great way to meet people who might be different from who you are. Here are some opportunities with AFS, which has 43,500 volunteers globally.

4. Be kind to yourself and others.

Reflection-in-action means that when a situation does happen where you were biased, and you realize it in the moment, reflect on how come you just did or said what you did or said – maybe use the DIVE exercise and your own assessment of your stereotypes. While there’s no prescription of what to do, a simple apology can help the other person understand that you realize you were biased and that you are aware you shouldn’t have been. It might not make it less embarrassing, but it might help alleviate the stress, small or large, you have caused on the other side. You might not always get away mumbling “what a faux-pas, my apologies”, but try!