5 Things You Can Do To Check Unconscious Bias on Campus

Oppression on a college campus can take many forms and impact students, staff, and faculty in a multitude of ways.

From how we navigate incident response to the decisions we make when working with marginalized groups on campus, it’s important to remember that many forms of oppression begin with moments of unconscious bias.

Unconscious biases are learned stereotypes that are automatic, unintentional, and deeply rooted in ideas about a specific group — which may dictate how we treat other people. Knowing and understanding how unconscious biases affect the work we do as student affairs professionals is vital in creating an equitable experience for everyone on our campuses.

While some institutions believe that having high numbers of marginalized students or the best diversity and social justice programs makes them beyond fault, many of us can and do hold biases that get in the way of creating an inclusive community. Many times, individuals think that just because they are educators, they somehow aren’t capable of having unconscious bias.

So why have conversations around unconscious bias? Well, because biases show up in our daily work. It could be in the ways you respond to an email or how you make a decision during a judicial hearing, to name just a few common examples.

Knowing and understanding unconscious bias reminds us of the work we must do to unlearn toxic systems that can cause harm to marginalized people within our communities. Here are some best practices to continually keep in mind.

5 Smart Ways To Check Bias

1. Be open to critique

One of the greatest ways to check unconscious bias is by admitting that you and everyone else around you has it. (Want to understand your hidden biases better? Test yourself here.)

In the process of doing so, remember that it’s never easy to admit fault or own the ways in which you might have unintentionally harmed someone.

While doing the work around unconscious bias can be difficult, being patient with yourself and others is the only way forward. Remember, you didn’t create the problem; you are just helping to provide a solution. Take every critique in your journey in stride and remember that the greatest moments of learning happen when we are most uncomfortable.

2. Remember to hold other people accountable

Just like it took years for you to develop your biases, it might take a long time to rid yourself of them. The same goes for other people. While being aware of your own biases is important, it’s truly only half the battle; you need to gracefully help other people recognize their biases, too.

bias survey

A great way to do this — rather than explicitly calling someone out for their actions — is to call them in. Maybe they made an ill-informed statement about a marginalized individual. Asking to speak with them afterwards, rather than during an open meeting or public event, can not only help them understand where and how they made a misstep, it can also challenge them to be more thoughtful about their other biases in the future.

You could also invite an external speaker to your campus to talk to students, faculty, and staff about unconscious bias. Offering something that everyone can engage in takes the pressure off of individuals who are in the beginning stages of unlearning unconscious bias. It provides everyone with a brave space to learn about all the harmful ways in which they may be thinking about and interacting with marginalized individuals.

3. Understand history

When beginning to check your unconscious biases, it’s important to know the history of your institution. Its history may heighten or add to your unconscious biases, especially on a campus where inclusivity or social justice practices may have not been historically normalized.

I also suggest getting other perspectives on the topic. Listening to podcasts like The Culture Inside and Code Switch can help you understand how groups have been stigmatized historically and what you can do to end the cycle of oppression on your campus. It might even be a great way to engage other people (including students and co-workers), since listening to podcasts is all the rage right now.

4. Don’t detach from social justice issues

As student affairs professionals, one of the smartest ways to engage in conversations around unconscious bias is to focus on the specific issues that most affect the communities we serve.

When planning trainings or events, we must remember to not become detached from topics of racism, sexism, ableism, anti-Blackness, heteronormativity, and homophobia. Checking unconscious bias means recognizing all of the isms that live within our campuses, while understanding that bias works as an agent of systematic oppression.

A great way to start, as noted by Co-Founder and CEO of Awaken Michelle Kim, is by seeing bias as a fundamental social justice issue. She challenges readers to view unconscious bias as something that’s invisible and working to keep systems of oppression alive in many institutions.

Michelle Kim bias quote

 5. Engage in a journey of unlearning

One of the hardest things to do is to unlearn something, especially when you’re not fully aware of the things you unconsciously believe to be true. As we continue to work to dismantle oppression, we must know and understand how our lived experiences may have taught us to feed into ideologies that can be considered oppressive.

A blindspot many people overlook is how we discuss issues pertaining to trans students and the experiences they have on campus. Sometimes we forget to acknowledge their experiences or we might say something that can be considered transphobic, even if it may not be what we truly mean.

We have to remember that society tends to erase trans stories and experiences, and that it’s easy for us to do the same.

Unlearning biases should also involve understanding that many lived experiences are brought to a campus community and left misunderstood. Engaging in the process of unlearning is a personal experience and involves recognizing that you and everyone on your campus has blind spots. Everyone should recognize that blind spots are usually shaped by their upbringing, the people they keep around them, and the unconfirmed “truths” they develop over a lifetime.

A great book to read on this topic is Mahzarin R. Banajin’s and Anthony G. Greenwald’s Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People. The authors not only make the topic conversational but accessible and engaging. It’s a great book to help you understand where you currently are and how to get to where you want to be.

Although the continual process of checking unconscious bias is hard,  it’s essential in dismantling oppression. Reminding yourself that this work is a marathon, not a sprint, can help you to stay centered in your journey of unlearning hurtful ideas and rhetoric that threaten to damage your community.

What have you learned from checking your unconscious biases? Tweet us at @themoderncampus and @DoctorJonPaul.

Editor’s Note: Hey reader! We recently released a podcast that you might enjoy. Here’s an episode that’s related to this blog post. You can learn more about Will There Be Food? here. 

Dr. Jonathan Higgins

About the author: Dr. Jonathan P. Higgins (he/him) is a speaker, writer and activist with more than 10 years of student affairs experience. Their work focuses on race & identity and ways to better support marginalized students while eradicating oppression. Learn how we can help get your students involved.