This post is the first in a series about language related to diversity and inclusion, with the goal of de-stigmatizing certain terms and reducing the possibility for contention and misunderstanding. Look for more in this series to improve your ability to have more meaningful, constructive, and relaxed conversations on inclusion topics.

At RW3, we've seen a recent spike in the demand for content around anti-racism, implicit bias training, and practicing inclusion, in large part because of the recent surge of protests sweeping the US. As these conversations continue on national, organizational, and individual levels, it's essential that employees have the tools to communicate inclusively.

But for many of us, talking about race can feel like opening a can of jumping snakes. With this post, I want to cover some of the vocabulary that often creates confusion or contention.

Why Does Language and Vocabulary Matter?

I'll start by acknowledging that not everyone will agree with this, but when it comes to inclusion, what matters more than any single person's perspective is the willingness to listen and be challenged, even to the point of feeling uncomfortable.

So, rather than incite further conflict, I want to focus on defining important terms and discussing their role in the workplace because I believe it will help foster mutual understanding. Communication becomes much more effective if we're all speaking the same language.

The following four terms are defined below. Feel free to refer to them as needed, but I invite you to read and reflect on the ideas of post in context before studying them.

  • Anti-Racism: Policy or practice of opposing racism and promoting racial tolerance.
  • Implicit Bias: The assumptions, attitudes, and stereotypes that affect our perception and decisions, often on an unconscious level.
  • Microaggression: A statement, action, or incident or indirect or subtle discrimination against a marginalized community.
  • Racial Privilege: The advantages or benefits afforded to one racial group over another racial group on a systemic and individual level.

Implicit Bias as a Barrier to Inclusion

Recognizing the ways in which implicit bias impacts these groups is essential to creating a more inclusive, anti-racist work environment. Unfortunately, implicit bias itself can interfere with our ability and desire to learn the very skills that can help us dismantle our biases.

Implicit bias is a natural, biological part of being human. When humans develop associations with different identities based on the messages we receive through family, school, media, and entertainment, our brains create shortcuts and rely on these to make decisions without conscious consideration. While this has been helpful to our survival as a species, it often leads to harmful assumptions about others, especially those who seem different than us.

Inclusion, therefore, requires us to challenge our implicit biases because our baseline assumptions can be unproductive and even detrimental in complex and diverse work environments.

What is the Impact of Implicit Bias on Racial Dynamics?

When individuals and organizations don't hold themselves accountable for non-inclusive policies and behaviors, it perpetuates discrimination. On a systemic level, research shows that racial bias negatively impacts the recruitment and career advancement of professionals of color, which by default means that white people benefit from racial privilege. To combat systemic problems, organizations should adopt more inclusive recruitment, onboarding, and management policies.

But we all have roles to play as individuals, too. We all tend to have good intentions, but we are almost never the best judge of our impact on others. Because humans – and most relevant for this discussion, white people – have been indoctrinated with damaging stereotypes about people of color, we unconsciously and wrongfully associate these groups with lack of competence.

This leads us to behave in unjust or discriminatory ways, almost always without realizing what we are doing. For instance, we may tell racially charged jokes without considering how the punch line might come across. Or we might insensitively ask, "Where are you actually from?" when what we really mean is "I'm curious about your ethnic background." The former is a very common manifestation of bias that reflects the presumption (albeit an unconscious one) that people of color are outsiders. This means they are often "othered" by being identified and categorized, rather than assumed to be an inextricable part of the group.

These and myriad other behaviors are often referred to as "micro aggressions" because they are so subtle as to go unnoticed by anyone but the person being victimized. A friend of mine humorously describes them as being like mosquito bites – one is usually negligible, but many of them leads to increased discomfort, stress, and even pain.

Everyone stands to benefit from learning how bias manifests, how to question behaviors and assumptions, and ultimately, how to adjust our decision-making to account for implicit bias, even if we don't yet recognize that it's there.