Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Life Is a River

We float on the surface, moving inevitably to its end. Our end. And we can move with the current or against it, crossing at times to the other side, staying at moments in eddies that swirl around obstacles, but we always eventually find ourselves deposited in its delta, sediment left behind, returning to the earth.

At times we fight the flow, determined to move in a different direction, struggling to overcome the forces that exert their pull on us. For example, if we’re born into poverty, it’s an enormous battle to work our way into not just wealth but mere comfort. We have no cushion to soften the expense of a sudden illness or the loss of a job.

And if we’re born into privilege, we have things handed to us we don’t deserve. A good education, great jobs, toys and leisure. We don’t wish to believe that, of course. We’d much rather tell ourselves that we did it by hard work, that we pulled ourselves up into success by our own efforts.

That’s sometimes true. People with drive and smarts will often end up in successful positions, regardless of where they started. But generally, they had help in the form of unconscious bias. When two equally qualified candidates are up for a job – one white, one black – the white candidate will be offered the job far more often than the black one. Just like the male manager/scientist automatically receives a gravitas that females have to work to attain.

This kind of hidden discrimination is extremely hard to prove – because it’s not conscious. The people who decide that the male or the white candidate is better would insist they’re not prejudiced, that they’re making their decision on the basis of the facts.

But everything is witnessed through the prism of societal norms. When you talk about a nurse, most people assume you’re talking about a woman; when you talk about a soldier, most people assume you’re talking about a man.

We all have these implicit biases – about race, gender, age, disability, religion. And what makes those biases dangerous is that we often don’t know or admit we have them, so we’re unable to counter them. If you don’t know (or refuse to admit to yourself) that you’re unconsciously favoring men over women, for example, you can’t take action to correct for that bias.

Part of the problem is that as we age, we learn that these hidden biases are wrong and so we come to believe that we have overcome them. Our rational minds state that we are enlightened and we no longer hold those beliefs. But unless we actively work to compensate for those prejudices, we haven’t really solved the problem.

We still have the biases; it’s just that we think we don’t. So we justify our beliefs by telling ourselves there are logical reasons for why we selected the person with the preferred trait. We perpetuate discrimination because we honestly believe we’re not discriminating. Unless we engage in serious self-examination, we won’t be able to solve this problem in the future.

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