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Minneapolis author seeks understanding by studying 'unexamined bias'

Minneapolis author seeks understanding by studying 'unexamined bias'

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"The End of Bias," by Jessica Nordell.

"The End of Bias," by Jessica Nordell. (Macmillan Publishers/TNS)

Jessica Nordell's "The End of Bias" dives deep to help us transform ourselves and our world.

MINNEAPOLIS — Jessica Nordell earned degrees in physics and poetry and has worked as a journalist for more than 15 years. But in her soul, Nordell is an archaeologist, digging deep into the human psyche on a quest to understand why we move through the world with realities "tinted and tinged and tweaked by a panoply of assumptions" about one another.

Nordell grew up in Green Bay and moved to Minneapolis after college, where she worked as a freelance writer and radio producer. After moves east and west, she returned to the Twin Cities in 2013 and began her transformative work around discrimination. Her new book, "The End of Bias: A Beginning," came out in September.

Q: Your book could not be more timely, yet you began researching it far before last summer's racial justice reckoning. What motivated you originally?

A: I was in many ways protected from understanding bias growing up in the 1980s and '90s; I never had to seriously contend with racism and I was also protected somewhat from gender bias by the structure of academia. Then, a few years out of college, I was struggling to break into journalism. I was pitching story ideas to editors at national magazines and getting nothing but rejection. I decided to try sending out a story under the first name J.D. instead of Jessica. Within hours, the same piece was accepted. Every woman has the experience of being devalued, discredited, of having assumptions made without the other person knowing who you are. That is really what bias is. Gender bias cracked open the door for me. From there, I started exploring racial bias, among others.

Q: You began writing your book in 2016 and completed it in 2020. Did this deep dive into the topic of bias shift your thinking about last summer's potent demand for racial justice?

A: Last summer's events were not surprising to me. What George Floyd's murder revealed was the gap between the consciousness of white people and the consciousness of nonwhite people around the reality of racial injustice. Black people have been suffering at the hands of police for as long as this country has had a memory. What was shocking to me was white people saying, "I had no idea."

Q: Most of us are certain we don't have biases. Why are we so wrong about that?

A: We all like to believe we're a little less biased than everyone else. I did. I had to come up against my own biases, including my own snap judgments about other women and their levels of competence. I also was rightly criticized for paternalism on the basis of race in an early article I wrote, by people I respected. As I spent six years with this research, I had this question: Can we trace this blood stream infection back to the original abscess? In the case of anti-Black racism, you can see that it came out of the transatlantic slave trade. In the case of gender, in some regions, you have to go back to archaeological evidence and look at burial patterns to start to see where men and women are treated equally. How old the patriarchy is made me start to see how much it infuses everything.

Q: Did you worry that you might miss something crucial because you are white?

A: Any white person talking about race needs to be aware of how their experiences in many ways limit their understanding. As white people, we have to constantly struggle to understand a world that, I'll be candid, is set up for us to not understand. I'm constantly evolving. But the book is grounded in science and research. It's not my opinion as a white person. I included as much as possible from researchers of color whose lived experiences inform their scholarship.

Q: But you find it essential that people such as yourself continue to do this work. Tell us why.

A: It's essential for white people to be involved. That the burden of ending racial injustice needs to be shouldered by people most impacted is insane. White people have always had the luxury of not having to pay attention. One of my interviewees, a Black technologist I interviewed in 2019, said, "You know, Jessica, I don't think white people notice our absence." I said, "I think you're right."

Q: Unconscious bias, implicit bias, unintentional bias, unexamined bias. Do you have a preferred way to describe this challenge?

A: Lately, I've been using unexamined bias. It best captures the gap between what someone professes to believe and their actions. Ultimately, with all of these terms, you're measuring discriminatory behavior. It could be absolute prejudice that this person is concealing all the way to automatic associations outside of a person's awareness.

Q: Might you speak to the "color blind" theory?

A: People are now understanding that it's not a helpful approach. First of all, it's not true. Studies show that we categorize race instantly when we see people. The problem is not in seeing difference. The problem is in assigning value.

Q: Values from?

A: Inherited toxic lies, really old ideas about who counts, who matters.

Q: What do workplace anti-bias trainings get wrong? Should we still do them?

A: Sometimes, they're done for legal compliance. Other times, they're well-intentioned efforts to make sure everyone can thrive. The biggest thing we get wrong is using trainings that haven't been evaluated. They need to be rigorously evaluated on the level of a medical intervention or we really don't know what we're looking at. We don't know what the goal is. You have to define the goal and figure out if you've met it.

Q: What might the goal or goals be?

A: A year from now, for example, do employees of color report that they feel they have influence? Access to opportunities that their colleagues have? Do workplace leaders believe this is important? We'll have short-term fixes unless people at the top believe this is essential to the functioning of the organization.

Q: Please share a success story that we might be able to replicate.

A: Mindfulness increases self-regulation, which means less impulsivity when stressed. In one city where police officers participated in yoga and daily mindfulness training, after eight weeks, officers reported less anger, fatigue and burnout. The number of times force was used over seven years decreased 40%. Another program transformed police behavior by altering their incentives. Community trust increased, arrests dropped, and so did violent crime.

Q: You make a powerful point about the damaging impact of bias far beyond the individual.

A: There are huge societal losses associated with shutting people out. Bias not only robs individuals of their futures, it robs science of breakthroughs, art and literature of wisdom, politics of insight. It robs entire fields of talent, companies of ideas, culture of progress.

Q: How do we get to a place where no one is robbed? Where everyone genuinely matters?

A: There is substantial research suggesting that people's behavior changes when you form meaningful relationships with people of different social identities and are working on a shared goal. One of the studies I found really compelling focused on the caste system in India. Cricket players from different castes who were placed on the same team developed more cross-caste friendships. It speaks to how essential it is for us to connect meaningfully with people who are different from us, not in a "savior" way, but to work on a shared goal. This is the path to understanding our interdependence and the ways our biases have harmed us.

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