Within each of us, there are unconscious biases that shape how we approach and interpret the world, interact with others, and make both mundane and important decisions.
These biases can often have harmful effects on others and, on a society-wide level, they can accumulate to create injustices.
Think about racism. Many non-Black people in the United States would not describe themselves as racist, but their actions tell a different story when you look at the profound racial inequalities that exist within the country. These inequalities don't happen by accident; they're maintained and perpetuated by structures, and those structures are maintained and perpetuated by individual people.
How do you explain the gap between people's beliefs and their real-world impact? Unconscious bias.
Unconscious biases are, by their very nature, hard to observe — but that doesn't mean they can't be analyzed and ultimately changed. In her illuminating new book The End of Bias: A Beginning: The Science and Practice of Overcoming Unconscious Bias, the journalist Jessica Nordell leverages 10 years' worth of research and interviews to explore the phenomenon of unconscious bias and how people can become more self-aware and intentional.
"Learning that there are approaches that have been shown to change people’s behavior has been surprising," Nordell told Global Citizen. "The reality of bias is so big and all encompassing. It's very hard to see it all. There is a philosopher who has this idea of the hyperobject, a phenomenon that is so vast and all-encompassing that it’s impossible to see. I would say that white supremacy and patriarchy are hyperobjects that are so completely enveloping and invasive into so many aspects of life that it's often difficult to see them.
"That's why rigorously engaging with one’s own mind is the beginning of agency, of gaining the ability to see the invisible, and beginning to change," she said.
The End of Bias: A Beginning is the October selection for the Global Citizen Book Club. You can enter to win a copy of the book and join us for a conversation with Nordell on Nov. 9.
Nordell recently spoke with Global Citizen to discuss the book, her motivations for writing it, and what people can expect.
Global Citizen: Can you tell me about how you got interested in studying unconscious bias and then how your career trajectory developed?
Jessica Nordell: My interest really crystalized when I entered the workforce. I had been relatively shielded from gender bias while going through the school system and had been very shielded from racism as someone who was raised as white and grew up in a majority white town in Wisconsin. But it wasn’t until the workplace that gender bias became more vivid. There was a particularly clarifying moment when I was a young journalist working for local and regional publications and hoping to break into national publications. I started pitching stories and didn’t hear back from editors. In a moment of desperation, I decided to pitch a particular idea using a name that I thought would be mistaken for a man’s name — I used JD instead of Jessica — and the piece was accepted within a few hours. It was the same pitch I had made with no response at all beforehand, and it crystallized my understanding of the way people may be treated differently without maybe conscious intent on the person who is expressing the bias.
So that was a pivotal moment and that launched my scholarly interest. I started reporting and writing on gender bias and developed a kind of beat around gender bias, and then over time it became clear to me that this phenomenon of unintentional, unconscious, or unexamined bias with regard to gender was really part of a larger phenomenon that really connected to so many different aspects of social identity.
It became a kaleidoscopic field of study.
Over many years, I was focused on finding stories that documented and explored and analyzed the phenomenon of bias. I really wanted to shift gears to focus on what we could do about it, and I was interested in focusing on evidence-based approaches, not just ideas about what we could do to decrease discrimination, but what has actually been shown to change people’s behavior.
There are, of course, structural explanations for bias, but solutions are often focused on the individual. What are your thoughts on the supposed dichotomy between the structural and the individual?
Certainly right now, we see so much essential attention on structural forces. And the truth is, I've been thinking about this a lot since the start of the project. I remember having a dark night of the soul a couple of years in, really wondering how much it made sense to focus on the individual mind and the individual actor and individual behavior, but as I grappled with this question, what I came to understand is that structures do not appear supernaturally. They do not come from the heavens. They’re created by people. We’re the ones who create the policies and the laws. We’re the ones who enforce laws or don’t, or choose how to use policies and so, ultimately, I think even structural change is still very connected to the individual, the personal, and the human heart.
I think about this really incredible research by this psychologist Jennifer Eberhardt. She found that, for instance, the blacker a prison population was presented as being, the more punitive policies white voters supported. In other words, people’s own biases, whether conscious or unconscious, people’s own racism, directly affects the kinds of policies they’re going to support, which is the basis of the structural inequality we have.
I love that research; I think it's such a good example of how these things are connected. They’re often presented as dichotomous, but they’re often intertwined. I honestly think that as we shift our individual minds, it allows us to better perceive structures as well.
What was the process of writing this book like and what challenges did you run into?
It was intense. It was emotional. It was exhilarating. It was upsetting. It was really a very transformative experience. I went into this project one kind of person, and I came out another kind of person.
I think I went into the project with a sense that I was probably a little less biased than everyone else, and through the process of writing the book, I had to face what was going on in my own mind and heart and the process of facing it and grappling with it, allowed for a lot of transformation. I feel like I’m a different person now.
I would say I probably drew on a thousand research papers and dozens of books. I talked to hundreds of researchers. I did an exhaustive self-study on the social psychology of prejudice and discrimination. I'm a journalist, so I felt like I had to have a complete grounding in the field before I could endeavor to take a stand.
The process was also for me about how to make these ideas really engaging and accessible. So I drew on my background in poetry, I drew a lot on metaphors and, I hope, poetic language and analogies in order to make these abstract ideas concrete and vivid.
What’s something about unconscious bias that surprises people when you tell them?
I think one thing that people actually are skeptical about is whether this is something we can actually change and make a dent in. When I talked about the book project, sometimes people would raise their eyebrows and say, "You’re really looking at tackling this problem? I really thought it was a fact of life, inevitable."
Learning that there are approaches that have been shown to change people’s behavior has been surprising. The reality of bias is so big and all-encompassing. It's very hard to see it all. There is a philosopher who has this idea of the hyperobject, a phenomenon that is so vast and all-encompassing that it’s impossible to see. I would say that white supremacy and patriarchy are hyperobjects that are so completely enveloping and invasive into so many aspects of life that it's often difficult to see them.
That's why rigorously engaging with one’s own mind is the beginning of agency, of gaining the ability to see the invisible, and beginning to change.
What’s an anecdote in the book that captures the power of this research?
There’s an incredible story that I uncovered in the research of the power of inclusion involving a math professor at San Francisco State University who has systematically refashioned the math classroom in order to get rid of all the alienating, uncomfortable aspects and create an environment where students from historically underrepresented backgrounds can feel empowered and included. And he has had unbelievable success.
He had a class of 21 students at a school that was mostly first-generation college students, 60% from racially or ethnically underrepresented groups. In his class of 21 students, 20 of those students went on to graduate degrees in math, and 15 have gotten doctorates in math. That would be a shocking number at the most elite university and it demonstrates how when you create environments that systematically get rid of bias, human flourishing is possible.
Those are the kinds of stories that I hope readers take to heart and think, "How can I recreate this in my own milieu?"
Do you see this book as part of the broader cultural shift toward more focus on therapy, self-understanding, self-empathy, and self-growth?
I do think that there is a really important stage in reducing one’s own bias that involves self-compassion, because it’s really easy to fall into a posture of defensiveness or shame when one confronts one’s own behaviors that conflict with values. And so, yes, I think the book probably does benefit from the research and emphasis on self-compassion and compassionate introspection, because it’s really essential to change.
We’ve become more and more like a therapeutic culture. I certainly have benefited from the plethora of research and the way self-compassion allows us to get unstuck and change and move in positive ways.
I see that Jenny Odell is blurbed on the back of the book. How to Do Nothing, her last book, was often lumped into the self-help category. But that genre is often characterized by reductive and solipsistic information. Odell’s book couldn’t be more different. What do you think distinguishes her book and your book from that category?
When I think of a self-help book, I think of bullet points and simple solutions and lists of easily accessible steps. And I can't really see the book in this way.
The material doesn’t lend itself very well to a quick-fix idea. And it also seems to me that self-help books have a bit of a shorter time frame in which they operate in a person’s life, and I think this book and maybe Jenny’s book also are really about a complete shift in perspective and that’s something that takes a lot of time. It’s sort of like a slow transformation that takes place in any person’s specific and particular timeline.
A self-help book sort of purports to have all the answers, and I think my book and Jenny's book both invite questions. They’re not closed loops. I invite the reader into the questions that I’m grappling with and I share the thoughts and tensions and complexities that I see in the subject without necessarily being completely prescriptive.
I think also, one of the challenges, one of the things I experienced in my research, is coming face-to-face with unresolvable tensions that are part of this subject. Most self-help books don’t do that well with unresolvable tensions. They tend to choose one or the other and make a choice for you. What I try to do in this book is offer and describe the tension and allow the reader to grapple with it themselves in their own journey of transformation, wherever it may find them.
How does the Global Citizen Book Club work?
Read: Each month, we will handpick a new book to read together, relating to one of our core issues. You can purchase each month's selection at your local bookstore — or, if you're feeling lucky, Global Citizens in the US can enter to win the book here!
Discuss: Each week, we will engage in facilitated discussions with your fellow Global Citizens around major themes, key learnings, and more in our “Global Citizen All-Access” Facebook Group. Join here!
Participate: The following month, we will host a virtual discussion with the author, where you will get the chance to engage and ask questions. You can get a ticket to the event by taking action with Global Citizen and using your points, so keep an eye out on Global Citizen Rewards!