One of the harder journeys for white people like me is coming to terms with our unconscious bias when it comes to race, gender, ethnicity, etc. I have it, you have it. And becoming aware of it and reducing it is more critical than ever.
What I know is noticing “differences” is rooted in neuropsychology. You know that our brains are comprised of a few different and distinct but connected areas. For this discussion, I will focus on two parts–the neo-cortex and our emotional brains. I apologize to the professional neuroscientists out there, but I will describe these in terms I can related to.
Our emotional brain works essentially on autopilot and it is greedy. It is sensitized to look for threats, and when detected, takes our energy away from other parts of the brain. It literally syphons gas from our neo-cortex. These threats may not be dangerous at all, but our emotional brain has no ability to figure that out. It essentially relies on our neo-cortex to sort it out. The neo-cortex is the part of our brain in which higher order critical reasoning is rooted. This executive function allows us to manage our emotional brain, think logically, consider alternatives, and do the right thing, even if our emotional brain is going a bit haywire. The neo-cortex requires A LOT of fuel to function, and when the emotional brain begins to syphon off energy, the neo-cortex must take it back. It is like working out when you haven’t slept well the night before. You can do it, but performance suffers. If you have a good reasons, though, you’ll push through and sometimes find that second wind.
Our emotional brains detect over 200 different “points of difference” in nanoseconds. And these differences include, but are not limited to race, gender, and ethnicity. Because of the evolutionary nature of our emotional brains, when a difference is noted, it is experienced as a threat to our emotional brain. It reacts as if the “saber-tooth tiger” is really charging us. So, yes, we are not colorblind, even if our neo-cortex claims to be.
So, here is the point. A great leader has the nuanced self-awareness to know what our emotional brain is communicating. And a great leader has the ability to use the critical reasoning of the neo-cortex to recognize if the emotional brain is identifying a real threat or an imagined one. The neo-cortex uses its fuel to make thoughtful, logical, reliable, useful decisions. Utilizing BOTH parts of your brain is required.
When it comes to race, you will notice differences between you and others not of your race. What is NOW required is to FIND the points of connection. Don’t back away or push away the threat—denying any emotional discomfort. Use your executive function to lean in and push beyond comfort.
For those who have read White Fragility, I interpret that the fragility refers to white people’s emotional brain’s discomfort with all things race—including racial justice. It is afraid of and denies any discomfort. But we can use our neo-cortex to take a moment to understand the message of the emotional brain and remind ourselves that the threat is IN OUR EMOTIONAL BRAINS. It is not in the person in front of us. As human beings and as leaders, we must be aware of these imagined threats and deal with them ourselves. Then, discover the points of similarity in relationship with others.
I am learning. Want to learn with me? Send me an email. It will improve your leadership in so many, many ways.