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The Disruption of Storytelling - Part 3 of 3

The act of disrupting bias comes in many forms. Most often, we tend to think of the vocal ones—speaking out in a meeting or verbally challenging a stereotype. The articles in this series explore the many and various ways we can all participate in disrupting bias, with and without words. Depending on your environment, ability, colleagues, and the particulars of each situation, you can find resources and make informed decisions on how to respond to bias in ways that are safe, effective, and beneficial.


Over the last two weeks, I’ve written about how disruption can come in the forms of refusal and listening. Perhaps you’ve been wondering when you should speak to disrupt. Maybe you’re thinking about what, in the end, you’re supposed to say? Today, we’ll dig into how you can use your voice to disrupt bias.


When Unconscious Bias Comes to the Surface


There’s a story I tell regularly, about a previous position where part of my job was creating a rotational attorney program. In short, I would bring attorneys from other offices in the firm to work out of the Palo Alto office for a few months at a time. I handled their moving and living logistics, and more to ensure an easy and smooth relocation. After working with people for months over the phone, we’d often come to learn a lot about each other and develop solid working relationships.


And then, these attorneys would eventually walk into our office and meet me for the first time. Their reactions varied, but there was almost always some measure of surprise when they looked at me. Some stopped in their tracks. Some were rendered speechless. Others were noticeably uncomfortable or awkward. Still others came out and said, “You don’t look at all how I pictured you.” For these folks, my voice, my name, and perhaps my competence didn’t add up to my race, and they were simply unable to hide their surprise.


I navigated each situation differently, depending on the person. Sometimes I ignored it or played it off with a laugh. Other times, I addressed their reaction more directly. The one thing each encounter had in common was that afterward, I worked extremely hard to regain my credibility. I knew I needed to re-prove my worth in the face of their biases coming to the surface.


Why I Tell This Story


So, why do I tell this story to people today? The answer is more a matter of “when.” I share this story when I see the same bias surfacing in someone I’m currently talking to—someone who meets me and responds with shock at my race.


How I tell the story depends on the person standing in front of me. Women of color are masters at reading the emotional state of a situation. We’re experts at connecting with people like and unlike us, knowing how to assess others’ moods and reactions in order to figure out our level of safety. Since I’ve done this all my life, I trust my gut on how to go about telling the story. Sometimes, I tell it with humor. Others I weave with more seriousness or vulnerability at how those past encounters were hurtful. If the person I’m talking to is embarrassed by their own shock, I can use my story to offer them relief at knowing they are not the only one to carry racially biased expectations. If they’re less self-aware, I can use my story to illustrate the harm their bias causes.


And there’s still another context in which I’ll tell this story sometimes: to other women of color, in order to create a relationship, connect on common ground, and let them know they’re not alone.


The Power of Telling My Story


For a person who’s surprised by my race, telling my story names their bias. I say it out loud and then describe how the same bias they’re carrying has affected me in the past. They sit with that information in real time. Hopefully, their consciousness begins to shift in that moment. An unconscious bias about how black women speak or work has been unearthed and has moved into their conscious mind. And that’s uncomfortable.


Here’s the thing about unconscious bias: most people do not want to believe they are racially prejudiced. Bigotry is not something we walk around affirming to ourselves. It’s hidden. It’s living just below the surface. But, it’s there, nonetheless. The definition of an unconscious bias is a belief that is incompatible with someone’s consciously held values. That’s why our mind shelters us from them. When we’re under stress or time pressure, when we’re feeling unsafe, or even when we’re simply busy multi-tasking, unconscious bias gets activated.


And here’s an amazing quality about most people: they don’t often have the opportunity to confront their unconscious biases, but when they do, most of the time their conscious values win out. When our awareness is raised and our own bias surfaces, we usually feel shame and want to disavow it. We become more thoughtful, more careful, more aware of others. We change and we grow. Diversity makes us uncomfortable, but it also pushes us out of group think and away from stereotypes.


What Kind of Story Should You Tell?


When you do tell your story, make it personal, specific, and consequential.


For example, if you’re in a job interview and receiving a lot of questions about your availability, your capacity to work full time, your time commitments, your willingness to work weekends, your competing obligations, etc., you might guess that an unconscious bias against working moms is surfacing in the conversation. This might be the moment for you to tell a story about a previous project you successfully completed, along with details about your work ethic, your process, your leadership skills, and how you overcame other people’s assumptions about your commitment based on your gender.


In your story, use “I” statements, be detailed, and include the impact of the story on you. In this way, you’ll shift the listener’s consciousness from one of general bias against “working moms,” and help them see you sitting in front of them—not just some working mom, but an individual with a name and a story. This is bias disruption: asking others to see our humanity instead of a stereotype.


When you use strategic storytelling, you want to consider your timing. When you’re confronted with someone’s unconscious bias, and you’re in a safe environment, a story can raise their consciousness. You’ll also want to consider the kind of story the situation requires, and the best tone and approach.


On a side note: you can also use strategic storytelling on behalf of others. Maybe you hear another group being stereotyped in your presence. Your personal story may push listeners to confront biases that might be impacting your fellow female colleagues, LGBTQ colleagues, or any other marginalized group that’s being attacked.


Show Your Humanity


I can promise that disrupting bias with storytelling is not going to be easy or comfortable. Sharing a personal story is an act of vulnerability and it takes courage. Especially when sharing about something hurtful. But your courage is crucial here. You have to be willing to talk about yourself and reveal yourself to others. This is how you get seen in your full humanity, as yourself and not a faceless member of a group. This is how you confront bias head-on, push others to change, and finally allow conscious values to do their work.


Jennifer McClanahan-Flint is an Executive Career Strategist and the founder and CEO of Leverage to Lead. She helps women and people of color build careers with audacity and authenticity.

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