Why We Need To Talk About Our Biases

Don’t put up a wall when someone brings up stereotypes or bias—break it down, says Chelsea Cristene.

Audience analysis. Conventional wisdom. Demographics. 

If you were to sit in one of my speech or communications classes, you’d hear these three terms a lot. Merriam-Webster defines “demographics” as the statistical characteristics of human populations…used especially to identify markets. Demographics are what the Census Bureau collects when they call your house. They are what radio stations, restaurants, colleges, and retail stores rely on to establish branding and appeal to customers. Every semester, my students and I look at appeals to audiences based on age, gender, race, religion, economic status, occupation, and worldview—shared sets of beliefs and perceptions. 

What are we examining during this discussion? Stereotypes. Why? Because part of teaching students how to write and speak effectively is teaching them how to tailor their content and delivery to a particular audience. And yet, every time this day rolls around, I sweat a little behind the podium.    

Leading a discussion on demographics is an exercise in contradictions. I use the words “most,” “many,” “typically,” and “often” more times than I can count, and pray that I haven’t missed any disclaimers for fear of being labeled ignorant. Tailoring topics to a specific audience means looking at an example like prostate cancer as a typically (see?) gendered topic, while also reminding students that prostate cancer can be of interest to women as well. Some women in the audience may have a friend or partner suffering from prostate cancer. Some may volunteer for the Prostate Cancer Foundation.

The topic of body piercings usually appeals to the younger set, while senior citizens are more likely to be interested in Medicare, right? Not always. Plenty of people beyond their 20s or 30s get tattoos and nose rings, and a younger person may have to take care of a sick grandparent. Exceptions are everywhere.

In addition to demographics, my students and I also look at bias—a point of view held by an individual, group, or organization based on a set of life experiences or core values. One day, I offered this example, which was originally shared with me by a colleague. 

“Name a ‘bad area’ of town. Somewhere you wouldn’t feel safe going by yourself or at night.”

The class unanimously volunteered the name of a street downtown.

“When people say things like, ‘Don’t go there, it’s a bad area,’ what are they often implying?”

“Cities,” “people of color,” and “low-income housing” were the associations that the class made.

“So if we take this idea, see someone of color or someone wearing tattered or worn clothing in a store, and decide to monitor them more closely, what is happening?”

“We’re being prejudiced. We’re profiling.”

That was where I thought the conversation would end, until, after a brief pause, a student chimed in from the back row.

“That area IS unsafe, though,” she said. “There’s so much crime and gang violence.”

Something occurred to me in that moment: This girl is not wrong, and neither are those who make efforts to combat street profiling. Problems arise with prejudice. They also arise when you accuse someone of prejudice for merely acknowledging a reality.

Cognitive dissonance is rampant in a world where both the left and right battle for censorship—in speech, in textbooks, even in thought by altering or restricting word choice. “So long as books and stories continue to be strained through a sieve of political correctness, fashioned by partisans of left and right,” Diane Ravitch writes in her book The Language Police, “all that is left for students to read will be thin gruel.” 

The potential for everyone to be both offender and offended creates a climate of confusion over language and definitions; a verbal paralysis for fear of saying or writing the wrong thing. An atheist feels closeted; a Christian stifles his faith to avoid accusations of closed-mindedness. A little boy hides his love of dolls for fear of being called a “sissy”; a woman stashes her high heels away because she is told they are “unfeminist.” 

Demographic data is generally more concerned with the larger picture than the individual and all of his or her multifaceted characteristics (but neglect to mention the handful of Icelandic transgendered bullfighting single dads raising adopted children, and get ready for the outcry).  Enter any discussion of culture and throw in a variety of environments, upbringings, experiences, exceptions, and word choices, and you can feel like you’re teetering on the tightrope of political correctness. 

But provided everyone isn’t afraid to talk openly about demographics, stereotypes, and personal bias, you can also have a great exchange of ideas on your hands. It’s OK to be human, and to seize every opportunity to learn. 

In the same class that discussed the “bad area” of town, another student shared his experience being racially profiled by police in Los Angeles. As his experiences with racism in law enforcement mounted up, so did the resentment he felt toward police. Shortly after moving across the country, he was pulled over for what turned out to be speeding and was let go with a warning. He said that afterward, he felt a little silly for getting defensive as the cop approached him—who turned out to be a friendly man who wasn’t profiling him in the least. One incident, he explained, caused him to reconsider the core beliefs he’d held for years.

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a piece here on “white girl culture” as a social construct shaped by popular media and perceptions of what white guys desire. I received a lot of positive feedback, but also a fair amount of criticism. The article was born out of my experience as a twentysomething dealing with having felt ostracized from popular girl-culture for most of my life, and watching girls in my age bracket subscribe to marketed fantasy only to meet disappointment in their actual relationships. 

A few reader comments brought up “internalized misogyny”—valuing masculine traits over feminine ones—which forced me to stop and think. Internalized misogyny wasn’t something I had considered because it’s, well, internalized, which is the very nature of the beast with bias. And so by sharing and understanding these viewpoints, we learn and grow.    

In the classroom, debates abound. Is feminist criticism of psychologist Carol Gilligan’s “ethic of care,” justified, or would that too be internalized misogyny? Is Bill Cosby a positive role model for the black community, or does he completely miss the mark? And how do we feel about his sweaters

My ultimate two cents: Don’t put up a wall when someone brings up stereotypes or bias—break it down. Speak, and don’t just hear—listen. And remember that without demographic research, we wouldn’t have fields like psychology, sociology, or anthropology. Public speaking and persuasive writing would lose their power. Advertising and marketing would be nearly impossible. 

We don’t live in a genderless, colorless, ageless world where everyone holds the same neutral interests and skill sets, and thank God. 

Or don’t, you know, if you’re an atheist.

Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications living in central Maryland. She writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, education, and the media. Find her on Twitter.

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