Friday, March 15, 2019

Unconscious Bias at Work

Most of us suffer from some unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias or learned stereotypes that affect our thoughts and actions beneath the level of conscious thought. It's human nature. (You can learn a little about your own implicit biases and help researchers by taking Harvard's online tests for free here.)

I was recently reminded by a recent experience that this unconscious bias has real effects on people's lives and careers. There is a certain prestigious university in Nairobi that I visit frequently for work - there is a grant that I'm in charge of monitoring there, so I stop by for site visits and meetings. I've been going there for over a year, and every time I get to the main gate there is some type of security issue. Even though my contact at the university calls ahead to alert the guards of my arrival, they always ask me to get out of the car and walk to the pedestrian entrance. Sometimes, I have to walk through a metal detector. Other times, my bag is checked. Every time, they check my ID and fill out a visitor form for me.

Because I have always gone on my own with an Embassy motor pool driver (i.e., an official driver for the Embassy), I assumed this was fairly standard. Last time, I learned from my driver that he has been driving plenty of U.S. diplomats to this university for many years - and he told me not once has he ever seen one receive the treatment I did. None of them have ever had to get out of the car or negotiate with security or call one of the higher-ups at the university to be allowed onto the campus, especially when they arrived (as I always do) in an U.S. Embassy car with diplomatic license plates.

That day, I had this realization as a guard asked me why I was there and was confused by my answer of, "I'm a diplomat from the U.S. Embassy, and I have a meeting with one of your professors." He had to call another guy over who said, "So, you're a student." All of my issues gaining access to the compound over the past year suddenly made sense, assuming security was treating me like a student without an ID card rather than a diplomat with a scheduled meeting.

Was it my gender? Was it my age? Was it my ethnically ambiguous face? Most likely, it was a combination of all of those factors that made some people doubt my occupation, single me out, and treat me differently. Certainly, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt and say this was unconscious bias. They didn't intend to make me feel uncomfortable or irritated, but they responded in line with what their brains and instincts told them: I just didn't look like a diplomat.

Now, just because it's subconscious doesn't mean it's okay. I was so frustrated to learn I've been treated differently on the basis of my appearance this whole time that I raised it with my partners at the university to address with their security team. After all diplomats - and especially the U.S. Foreign Service - are more diverse than ever. (The first photo of this post is a perfect example of this that I distinctly remembered from my childhood and scoured the Internet for just for this post. It's an episode from the Kim Possible TV series [Season 2, Episode 8] featuring a diplomat at a career fair... Could they have gotten any more stereotypical?)

One of my biggest hopes is that by representing my country in the Foreign Service, I'm having an impact on how people see the diversity of the United States and its diplomatic corps - a bunch of mini-PD victories! As frustrating as it can be encountering skepticism on the basis of my appearance alone, leveraging that opportunity to transform someone's perception helps make it all worth it. For now, changing one heart and mind at a time is good enough for me.


  1. It sounds like this was, indeed, unconscious bias. And I'm sorry you went through that. Very frustrating. I think you handled it great, though. The *only* thing that gives me pause to your conclusions, though, is the fact that you ride in an Embassy Motor Pool vehicle. As someone who supervises MP, I find it hard to believe that the employees and guards of a local, prestigious university in the capital city did NOT know that you are diplomat given the vehicle you ride in. Everyone, except the remote village folks, know a dip plate and most of them know the number on the plate as representing USA. Do they not check your dip ID or embassy badge when you arrive? Those two things are the only things that don't add up as far as this being unconscious bias and not deliberate. Regardless, I hope your addressing the problem helped and you get better treatment going forward <3

    1. I actually asked someone about the dip plates and they suggested a lot of diplomats in town probably send their dependent adult kids to school in these vehicles but at that point they're treated like the other students. I can't think of any other reason because the guards did seem to recognize U.S. dip plates. Also, every single time I was treated this way I showed them my diplomatic ID, and they usually reacted with confusion. To be fair, the vast majority of places I've shown my diplomatic ID in Kenya - even Nairobi - they didn't seem familiar with what it was.