Where in the World is Aaron Greenberg? Unconscious Bias and Cultural Diversity

I was out of town, more than a thousand miles from my home town, Philadelphia, where I had lunch with some people I had never met. They could not have been nicer and we talked about many things including where we grew up and where we live now.  Being the worldly person I am, I mentioned that I live outside of Philadelphia, about 10 minutes from where I grew up. 

Toward the end of the meal, one of my lunch mates asked me if I knew Aaron Greenberg in New York.   I didn’t, so I asked him why he thought I might. I did not want to jump to any conclusions.  He responded honestly:  I just assumed you would.

I told him that I appreciated his honesty, but that even though I am Jewish, I don’t know everyone who is Jewish.  But if he could help me find Aaron Greenberg, my card would be filled and I could get a prize. I explained, gently, that I was kidding, and that even though I love to use Yiddish, I don’t know everyone who is Jewish!

I told the story to an African American colleague who smiled and told me she has had similar experiences. People have asked her about people she would have no reason to know; only common denominator—race.  Gut in Himmel.  (God In Heaven).

We live in a world in which overt bias is less (although still existent).  But that does not mean that there is not bias. Bias is still alive and well, living in the unconscious.
Sometimes, it is tempting to strike back.  Get it. But  we need to try to educate individuals who may not realize the implications of what they are saying.

Consider the following:

  • You don’t sound black.
  • You don’t look Jewish.
  • You don’t act gay. 
     

Scream internally but then ask calmly, "Help me understand:"
 

  • "What do black people sound like?"
  • "What do Jewish people look like?"
  • "What do gay people act like?"

More often than not, you will be pleasantly surprised with the response when the person realizes that what they said is based on a painful premise: you don’t look like the stereotype I held.

Of course, not always. I wear a replica of my grandmother’s chai (Hebrew for life) and someone once told me I do not look Jewish when they saw it. When I asked what Jewish people look like, I was told not to be so sensitive.  With a smile, I explained the rule of holes. When you are in one, stop digging.

We all make mistakes. And others will make mistakes, too. As HR professionals, when we hear assumptions (euphemism for prejudging), we have an opportunity to educate.   Not everything is disciplinary.

Zero tolerance for good faith mistakes can lead to zero tolerance.   So, if you can, assume good faith and help the person reach his/her higher self.

Of course, this does not apply to hate words and symbols, or the like. There, we don’t educate. We terminate.

As Matt Lauer travels the world,  I have asked him to help me find Aaron Greenberg. No luck, yet. 

So, if you find Aaron, please let me know.  I want to complete my card already!    

THIS BLOG SHOULD NOT BE CONSTRUED AS LEGAL ADVICE, PERTAINING TO SPECIFIC FACTUAL SITUATION OR ESTABLISHING AN ATTORNEY-CLIENT RELATIONSHIP.

The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.
COMMENTS 1

Comments

Hello Jonathan, Great blog! It reminds me of one thing I do to reduce bias - I never state a person's race when describing them to someone else. Usually, the person to whom I am speaking will then say "oh, you mean that black guy" which enables me to make a statement about how this world will be a better place when we do not need to use labels to describe someone. How often do you hear someone describe a caucasian by saying "the white guy"? Take care / Mark

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