Can We Recognize And Acknowledge Our Own Bias?

Own BiasReflecting on our reaction to Donald Trump’s words and behavior throughout the election of 2016 provides an opportunity to examine our conscious and unconscious bias.

Our life experiences affect our beliefs, even if we aren’t aware that it is happening.  We learn from our past experiences, and they help us predict and prepare for future experiences.  Another way to describe that learning process is to say that we develop conscious and unconscious bias.

Bias doesn’t just affect how we vote in an election.  It affects every choice we make.  Sometimes, we are aware of the bias.  Sometimes, we are not.

An Example Of Bias

I am aware of many of the biases that have developed during my life.  One example I will share is that there is virtually no chance that I would ever become a vegan.  I grew up on a family farm with livestock.  We cared for living things, including chickens, turkeys, geese, rabbits, sheep, goats, cattle, and hogs.  We loved them, we played with them, we kept them safe and healthy and comfortable.  Until it was time to eat them.

Some of my earliest memories involve slaughtering poultry.  To be clear:  they are fond memories.  I treasure that time with my parents and siblings, making pillows from goose feathers, making noodles from egg yolks that were still inside the chickens, making and freezing rabbit casseroles that would be available to feed our family or to take to a neighbor who experienced a death in the family. I have a conscious bias that favors steak and despises tofu.  When people “judge” me for eating meat, I feel that they are “judging” my parents, my family, and my values.  And I am defensive about my parents, my family, and my values.

Bias Determines Decisions

Bias comes from deeply held beliefs, and bias always affects how we interpret information.    It isn’t just about race or gender or sexual orientation.  It is about every observation that we make.

Each of us has biases that largely determined our feelings about Donald Trump, and those feelings largely determined our decisions about Donald Trump.

Did you vote for or against Donald Trump?  Do you know why you voted the way you voted?

Are you proud to live in a country that elected Donald Trump as President?  Are you ashamed?  Are you optimistic?  Are you devastated?  Are you relieved?  Are you frightened?  Do you know why you feel the way you feel?

Each of us had access to all of the same facts and data to inform us.  We could see the Twitter and Facebook messages.  We could watch the republican debates and convention.  We could watch the presidential debates.  We could watch or read or listen to unlimited sources of news and entertainment about the candidates.  We could investigate and find answers to any factual questions about the candidates.

Approximately half of the voters picked Donald Trump to be the 45th President of the United States of America, to the profound shock and disappointment of the other half.

Something led us to choose certain sources of information.  Something caused our impression of Donald Trump to be favorable or unfavorable.  It was our pre-existing bias.

How did we, individually, interpret what we saw and heard?  Why did we interpret it that way?  It was our pre-existing bias.

My Story My Bias My Vote

I was born in rural, central Illinois.  I attended the same small, all-white public school from kindergarten through my high school graduation.  My parents are devout Catholics who stayed married.  They never miss Mass, they pray the rosary every day, and they put all five kids through the University of Illinois.  I’ve never been arrested, or homeless, or hungry.  I’ve never been diagnosed with a serious mental or physical impairment.  I have never been addicted to drugs or alcohol.  I have never been pregnant out-of-wedlock, and I value life from conception until death.  The boxes I have recently checked include: white, female, English-speaking, married, home owner.

Based on what you know so far, you’re thinking I voted for Trump.  I sound pretty privileged and pretty conservative, right?  More than half of white women, particularly rural, Christian women, voted for Trump.  But you don’t know all of my life experiences.

I did very well in school.  I graduated from the University of Illinois College of Law and have been a legal aid attorney for 20 years.  While I have never struggled with healthcare or housing or transportation and I have never been in danger of bankruptcy, I have worked with thousands of people who haven’t been as fortunate.  I am aware of the reality of poverty, and I am empathetic to people who are suffering.

Now you’re thinking I probably voted against Trump.  I sound pretty liberal, right?  Graduate degree, concerned about the poor?  But you still don’t know all of my life experiences.

My first husband died young, while I was 9 months pregnant, leaving me to raise two bi-racial kids as a widowed mother when I was just 29 years old.  I lived the life of a single parent for 10 years.  When I changed jobs several years ago, I tried to buy health insurance for my family during the waiting period before we could get added to the new employer’s group plan.  Both kids were denied coverage because of the “family history” of Marfan Syndrome, the genetic condition that killed their father, even though neither of them had been diagnosed at the time.  My daughter was eventually diagnosed, and will have this pre-existing condition for the rest of her life.  Did I mention that the majority of my legal career involves the civil and criminal response to violence against women?

Now you’re thinking I definitely voted against Trump, and that it had nothing to do with “politics.”  You’re thinking that almost everything I saw and heard during Donald Trump’s campaign triggered real life concerns for me based on my real life experience.

My impression was largely determined by deeply held beliefs about racial justice, sexual violence, access to healthcare, and safety nets.  I have a conscious bias in favor of civility and compassion.  I have a conscious bias against greed and cruelty. What determined your impression?

Finding Common Ground

I am still in the process of uncovering my unconscious biases.  I hope that others will join me in the quest to better understand ourselves and each other so that we can find common ground as we move past this divisive election.

Ramona Sullivan, Guest Blogger

Ramona Sullivan, Guest Blogger

Ramona M. Sullivan is the Assistant Public Defender in the Champaign County Public Defender’s Office in Illinois. Ramona previously served as a Senior Staff Attorney, Pro Bono Coordinator and Supervising Attorney for the Domestic Violence Clinic with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation.
Ramona Sullivan, Guest Blogger
Ramona Sullivan, Guest Blogger

Latest posts by Ramona Sullivan, Guest Blogger (see all)

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Ramona Sullivan, Guest Blogger

Ramona Sullivan, Guest Blogger

Ramona M. Sullivan is the Assistant Public Defender in the Champaign County Public Defender’s Office in Illinois. Ramona previously served as a Senior Staff Attorney, Pro Bono Coordinator and Supervising Attorney for the Domestic Violence Clinic with Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation.
Ramona Sullivan, Guest Blogger
Ramona Sullivan, Guest Blogger

Latest posts by Ramona Sullivan, Guest Blogger (see all)

6 thoughts on “Can We Recognize And Acknowledge Our Own Bias?

  1. Thought provoking and interesting. My theory, even before this election, perhaps due to my philosophy minor, is that there is no reality, only one’s perceptions and biases.

  2. Ramona, I commend you well thought analysis. It is thought provoking (as intended) yet uncomfortable. Most of us would rather take knee jerk reactions to overboard and overly broad comments and actions of others. It is difficult to come to grips with one’s biases, conscious or unconscious. For those of us who come in professional contact with the less advantaged, it is difficult not to become biased. The legal profession brings direct contact with those who most middle class Americans simply hear about. While it is healthy to bring those experiences to the attention of others, I fear that most legal professionals are wont to do so because of career considerations. It is good of you to have placed it on the table.

  3. Ramona–Thank you for being a phenomenal guest blogger! This was incredibly interesting. I am proud of my fellow Illini!

  4. Ramona, Thanks for this thoughtful & challenging analysis. I agree that we need to find common ground, and it’s unsettling that our representatives (both House & Senate) haven’t been able to set an example for this!
    That said, it only increases the importance of our own responsibility to set a good example for our own children and for all the Children of God with whom we share this beautiful, vulnerable planet

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