Rachel & Me—and unconscious bias

On the final day of the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce convention, I ran into a woman spoken to quite a bit during the previous few days—a straight woman there on behalf of her company, founded and run by two gay men.

“So how was your night last night?” she asked. “Did you go out after the reception?”

“Last night?” I said, “I went to bed with Rachel [pause] Maddow.”

It’s a pretty reliable joke. But on this occasion, it went somewhere completely unexpected.

“Oh,” she said, sort of laughing. “But she’s married to a man, isn’t she?”

[GIANT PAUSE] And then I set her, you’ll pardon the expression, straight.

I know what happened. At least I’m pretty sure—I was too stunned at the time to ask. But I did the important thing: I corrected the record.

I think at some point she heard that Maddow is married and then unconscious bias kicked in. Married woman = woman with husband, right?


Marriage has been legal for same-sex couples everywhere in the country for several years now. It’s past time to drop the assumption that a married person must have an opposite-sex partner.

And this from a woman who works for gay men, who chose to attend an NGLCC conference, who self-identifies as an ally.

Unconscious bias can happen to everyone

woman with hands over her face- unconscious biasDo you have unconscious bias? If you’re a human being, the answer is yes. I mean, maybe the Dalai Lama has escaped it, but the rest of us all form opinions about things. And sometimes we base those opinions not on facts but on stories we tell ourselves.

Regular readers know I’m a great advocate of story-telling, but only the conscious kind. When we tell ourselves stories about people without having any facts to back them up, that’s called stereotyping. Or, if it’s done by law enforcement-types, profiling.

Now this particular instance of unconscious bias didn’t cost anyone their job—although if the woman’s gay bosses found out she thought Rachel Maddow was straight…well, who knows what would have happened?

But her unconscious bias gave me the perfect opening story for the panel I participated in less than an hour later. I used it to illustrate the idea that we LGBT people must continue to be visible, because some people will unconsciously “straighten us out,” as the woman did to Rachel Maddow.

LGBT people can have unconscious bias, too—like when we hear someone’s a Christian and automatically assume that means they think we’re going to hell. Hey—I’ve been an Episcopalian for nearly 30 years; I know not all Christians hate us. And I still get wary when I meet someone who identifies as a Christian.

We’ve got our work cut out for us—all of us. But we can’t eliminate the evils of racism, homophobia, and all the other -phobias and -isms out in the world until we tackle the -isms and -phobias that live in our own heads.

Unconscious bias/unexpected consequences

Back to The Wall Street Journal‘s oddly heteronormative piece on storytelling I wrote about yesterday, “Why Good Storytellers Are Happier in Life and in Love.”

I’m a big advocate of storytelling (you may have noticed), and I thought this piece might give me more ways to convince my clients to tell stories. “Not only will people listen to you more, you’ll be happier, too!”

But the Journal could have saved itself some ink and deleted “in Life”—their piece really just focuses on how men and women relate to each other romantically. And as for my finding it “oddly heteronormative,” you’re right—why should I expect anything different from the WSJ? It’s just that, silly me, I thought I was reading a piece about storytelling.

Oh dear…when I sat down at the computer this morning, I thought I was going to talk about the very sensible storytelling tips at the end of the article. But quite unconsciously this seems to be turning into a piece on unconscious bias. So what the hell, I’ll go with it.

First let’s get our definitions, um (you should pardon the expression), straight: Conscious bias is when you knowingly skew your words to favor one group or reflect one view of reality. Like when Donald Trump says…well, just about anything beyond “hello.”

Unconscious bias happens when you let your own worldview infuse what you’re writing, saying, or thinking. Like assuming that women need special accommodation when using certain products, like—no, not buzz-saws. Pens.

Or that a person of color in a hoodie must be dangerous. Talk about dangerous—that unconscious bias kills. (And yes, sadly in many cases it may not be so unconscious.)

Or that every person seeking a relationship must be looking for the opposite sex.

Unconscious bias remains a big problem in the business world. Even as sexist members of the post-WWII generation leave the workplace, the biases they inherited from their fathers (and passed on to their children) remain.

I spoke about unconscious bias last spring in a video I made for the first World Speech Day.

In the last year, I’ve been paying close attention to how I use words. And I’m always surprised by how often I use gender markers when they’re absolutely unnecessary.

Forty years ago, the women’s movement brought employed women into our collective consciousness, and eventually we learned to stop saying things like “policeman.” Today, we talk about  gender-neutral “police officers.” Stewardesses have become “flight attendants.” “Male nurses” are plain old “nurses.” This the next stage in that evolution.

As I say in the video, there’s nothing wrong with using the language we’ve always used—until we realize that doing that can hurt someone.

Does that mean The Wall Street Journal shouldn’t have published an article about how storytelling affects heterosexuals’ mating practices? Absolutely not. It’s a valid topic for study and discussion. But the author should have acknowledged the omission of others. One way would be by noting that the research she’s writing about focused solely on male-female interactions. In fact,  the title of the study—“A good story: Men’s storytelling ability affects their attractiveness and perceived status”—makes it clear that the researchers  only cared about the male half of the equation. Ah…now I see what piqued The Journal‘s interest.

There’s really only one story they care to tell. And it often leaves out more than half the population.