Fighting Unconscious Bias – A Professor’s Perspective


Unconscious bias refers to a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is one that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.

Without knowing we all have such implicit or unconscious bias towards our fellow citizens, for example because they are black or Indigenous; belong to Muslim or Jewish faith; are gay, lesbian or transgender; or homeless. How do we know that we have such bias and what we can do about it?

There are various ways one can examine one’s own unconscious bias and reflect and change our own behaviour. At a societal level, unconscious bias leads to systemic racism and discrimination leading to inequity in resource distribution, excessive incarceration, early deaths and disabilities or apathy toward their situations.

 The following two examples shows how prevalent is the unconscious bias we all have: As a professor of the Public Health Sciences faculty at the University of Toronto and a researcher and service provider to Indigenous Peoples, I was often invited by different health and social sciences faculties — such as pharmacy, nursing, dentistry, medicine, anthropology and social work — to give a one or two-hour classroom lecture on Indigenous health to approximately 100 to 200 students.

I made it a point to begin each lecture with a simple activity that I felt gauged the level of understanding that students had about Indigenous Peoples. I would ask, ‘What adjectives come to your mind when you think about Indigenous Peoples?’ They were given the freedom to say whatever came to mind, no matter how it might be construed.

Before they answered, I always turned my back to them, facing the blackboard, to afford them a greater sense of personal safety. Students were generally honest in their verbal responses, and I wrote down their responses on the blackboard. Following that, I would undertake the activity again but for a different ethnic group such as Chinese, German, or French people. After writing down their responses, I would face towards my class and ask everyone who knew any Indigenous person to raise their hand.

Hardly about ten hands would be raised. I would then ask how many students in the class had been to lunch with an Indigenous person they knew. At this point, another four to five of the hands were raised. Finally, I asked if any of them had been to an Indigenous person’s house. Almost without fail, there would be no hands in the air.

At this point, I would review their adjective of Indigenous Peoples written on the blackboard with them. Almost 80 per cent of their responses about the aboriginal people were stereotypically negative, in stark contrast with the other ethnic groups, where almost 80 per cent of responses were positive. I knew that the students in my class were not necessarily racist, and they could see the error in their assumptions at this point. To attempt to understand how such a learned group of people could succumb to such a crude perspective of an entire race, I would ask them how they accounted for the negative aboriginal stereotypes they believed to be true.

 In students’ eyes, the largest culprit was the media, as they portrayed negative images of aboriginal peoples. While I could understand this perception, I was still constantly taken aback and would always remind my audience that the purpose of higher education is the development of critical thinking skills — I refused to let them off the hook because I knew they had the tools to combat the negativity of the media. The second example is again relating to how systemic racism creeps in our society without us ever knowing that it exists. In 1999, I became aware of a lack of diversity within faculty members at the University of Toronto.

Then, almost fifty percent of the students belonged to a visible minority, whereas only 8.6 per cent of faculty members were the same, despite the promise made by its president in 1990 to have faculty members reflect the community; over 40 per cent of Toronto population at that time were visible minorities and 9.4 per cent faculty members. During his tenure of almost ten years, instead of improvement there was a decline! I was able to demonstrate by mathematical model, if now onward, that 15 per cent of all newly hired professors were a visible minority, and it would take the university fifty-two years to achieve fifteen percent of its faculty to be a visible minority. We are living in a multicultural and multidimensional society.

What can one do to remove his/her unconscious bias? We all need to be self-reflective before voicing our adverse opinion about our fellow citizens. Get to know the group one despises. Read about them, their history, get to know individuals of the group, have a lunch, invite them to your house, attend their cultural program. The next step in the journey is to be their ally or advocate. A quote from Roxane Gay, in Black Life Matters, which aptly describes the type of actions needed: ‘Black people do not need allies. We need people to stand up and take on the problems borne of oppression as their own, without removal or distance. We need people to do this even if they cannot fully understand what it’s like to be oppressed for their race or ethnicity, gender, sexuality, ability, class, religion, or other markers of identity.

 We need people to use common sense to figure out how to participate in social justice.’ How did I tackle those issues described above? In the first scenario, I realized a widespread unconscious bias and developed a three-week program inviting Indigenous Peoples on the campus and talking their own lived experiences in classroom, hospitals, professional organizations and holding an event at Toronto City Hall. The program was so popular that donations/contributions kept flowing, leading to the development of an Endowed Chair in Indigenous Health and Wellbeing, first of its kind in Canada. In the second instance, I was able to build a widespread coalition of professors, learners, community organizations and leaders which advocated for employment equity and proactive recruitment for the visible minorities as professors.

 I am happy to report that it did not take 52 years, but just 15 years, to achieve a goal of 15 per cent. If one is concerned about discrimination or systemic racism, do not wait for someone else to act, do not be a bystander! No doubt, it is a long and arduous process to bring social change, but once accomplished, it is great for one’s soul and humanity.

About the author

Asia Metro Editor

Surjit Singh Flora
[email protected]

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