How I learned my own unconscious bias as a black man

A San Diego bar taught me a better lesson in diversity than any industry conference.

As a black man, I find that I’m the minority in most industries I work in - whether it’s finance or advertising. I understand that and have long since come to terms with it.

That being said, it’s always nice to be able to attend conferences like the ANA Multicultural Marketing & Diversity Conference which occurred this past week in San Diego. 

There I got to see how a multitude of people from all backgrounds are helping influence the end product that consumers see in terms of diverse advertising and content.

One cab driver I had toward the tail end of my trip even noted that the advertisements that he had seen over the years seemed to be more diverse than ever before - so there has been progress. 

But the diversity talk you find at industry conferences is often vanilla, watered down and bland in terms of being progressive and insightful.

You may have had a conversation with a Hispanic woman or had a Korean man sitting at your table, but they usually aren’t being their true selves. You’ll most likely be getting their professional, closed off persona. The side of themselves that they let be seen at work. The real them that they share with close friends and family is unlikely to be exposed at any kind of industry conference. 

And that isn’t the fault of the conference producers themselves, it’s up to each and every one of us to seek these lessons on our own. 

The most important lesson for me took place miles away in a dimly lit bar with blasting music in the city’s historic Gaslamp Quarter. 

Waiting to order a beer, I began speaking with two black men who carried an interesting style about them. Most pressing for me was finding out where one had bought his pretty cool jacket.

The conversation turned from fashion to jobs, as I told them where I worked, and they both in turn told me that they worked at Charles Schwab as investment brokers.
I have to admit I was a bit surprised, as they didn’t seem to fit the profile of investment brokers. 

But then I realized that I was harboring unconscious bias myself. I realized that if both people were white, regardless of what they were wearing, I wouldn’t have been surprised at their professions. 

From there I reminded myself that a black man or woman, or anyone for that matter, doesn’t have worth just because they’re wearing a suit.

But that’s not all.

My colleague also noted that if I hadn’t struck up a conversation then he wouldn’t have even thought to talk to either person, simply because he and them seemed to inhabit different worlds.

As a sort of bridge between those worlds I gathered how important it is to have diversity in mind when hiring talent.

How many barriers can be crossed and issues solved by simply having someone who knows how to move in different circles on your team?

As a man, it would be tough for me to understand exactly what women experience each day, just as it would be difficult for a white person to understand what a black person may experience on a day-to-day basis. 

While we all can and should seek to understand the broader issues facing people of different ethnicities, sexual orientations, religions, cultures and genders, oftentimes it can be difficult to understand the nuances each group is facing.

I left San Diego surprisingly enlightened and excited to have learned a lesson in addressing my own unconscious bias, and hopefully others will be inspired to do the same at their next industry event.  

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