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Business, Diversity & Inclusion, STEM

Unconscious Bias: Creating False Realities

 

dr-tamika-cross

Dr. Tamika Cross

What does a doctor look like in 2016? I’ve been following a story in the news media for the past two weeks that should be disappointing and surprising but is neither to me. As reported by NBC News, The Washington Post, The Minnesota Star Tribune and other media outlets, Dr. Tamika Cross, a Houston physician with an OB-GYN specialty, was traveling on a Delta Airlines flight from Detroit to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. During the flight a situation arose that prompted crew members to ask if a doctor or nurse was on-board to assist a passenger in distress?

Dr. Cross, a medical doctor and good Samaritan, raised her hand to help the unresponsive stranger two rows in front of her, however, she was prevented from doing so by a member of the flight staff who questioned her credentials. She was told by a flight attendant, “Oh no sweetie put [your] hand down,” Cross recounted in an interview with Time Magazine, “We are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel, we don’t have time to talk to you.”

Cross posted the accounts of the event on social media on October 9th. Her post went viral. Cross, who is black, believes she experienced blatant discrimination by Delta personnel on this flight from Detroit to Minneapolis. Once the flight attendant realized that Cross was a physician, she asked for her credentials. She wanted to know her medical specialty? Where she worked? And why she was in Detroit? All of these questions while the passenger two rows above Cross still needed to be helped.

However, according to Cross, when a white male approached the row and said “I’m a physician,” the flight attendant told her “thanks for your help, but he can help us, and he has his credentials.” Cross asserts she didn’t see the man, who “fit the ‘description of a doctor,” present any form of credentials. About 10 minutes later, when the ill passenger’s health began to improve, the flight attendant actually asked Cross for her advice about what to do next. Cross complied with the request and said vitals were needed and a glucometer to test blood sugar levels. The flight attendant eventually apologized several times to her, even offering her SkyMiles. The passenger eventually regained consciousness and was able to answer questions.

A spokesperson for Delta Airlines said the company has reached out to Cross about the incident. The airline has also acknowledged this social firestorm, saying, “Please know that we take this issue seriously,” and “it does not reflect the Delta culture.” In a message to the media, Delta said it has launched a full investigation into the matter and is interviewing crew members on board at the time. I’m glad that the company is looking into this incident. After all, #ThisIs2016.

This recent incident with Dr. Cross resonated with me. I’m sure it also captured the attention of countless others who have had similar experiences. At the beginning of her FaceBook post on this topic, Dr. Cross wrote, “I’m sure many of my fellow young, corporate America[n] working women of color can all understand my frustration when I say I’m sick of being disrespected.

Ditto! I’m not only sick of being disrespected, I’m sick of the ignorance, the lack of regard for personal and professional boundaries, and blatant assumptions that come with it. While some will dismiss Dr. Cross’ experience as an isolated incident, I beg to differ. I along with every woman of color that I know have more than a few stories that we can add to the Wall of  Isolated Incidences.

On a broader level, women in America are subjected to insults, jeers, pickups and come-ons every day. Not that long ago I was discussing this very issue with a female attorney. More specifically, we talked about the number of inappropriate comments and behaviors that occur in the court rooms of this country. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that this topic found an entrance ramp onto the 2016 presidential campaign trail.

The questioning of female credentials is not just limited to those in professional careers. Ask a female firefighter, plumber, mechanic or electric utility worker about the stares and assumptions that she may encounter on the job because someone questions her credentials, or her ability to get the job done. These biases, stereotypes and disrespect are not only limited to females. There are an awful lot of men who are all to willing list their shared experiences on the Wall of Isolated Incidences.

The academy (educational institutions) does not get a pass on this one either. One of the hats that I wear is that of an adjunct faculty member for a university in southern California. I’ve been teaching Calculus I, II, and III online for almost 10 years, and occasionally teach a few engineering classes here and there. About two years into my teaching assignment, one of my newly assigned male students asked me what qualified me to teach this class?

After making sure that I understood his question, I shared with him that my formal education included bachelor and master degrees in chemical engineering and an MBA plus 20 years of professional experience with small to large employers before launching my consulting practice. His response: Well, I guess you have enough experience to teach this class.

Really? I said to myself. And who died and left you in charge of certifying my qualifications to teach at the university level?

Two years after I launched this blog, A Bridge for Business & STEM, it started to gain an audience with frequent views and comments. A person that I’ve known for at least 10 years inquired of a mutual friend, “Who told her to do that?” On further questioning this person then asked, “Who is helping her with that?”

While I don’t doubt that across America there are persons who may have been told to start writing a blog as a way to enhance their career or resume, however, that would not apply to me, nor is it the case for countless other women who have embraced social media and started blogging on their own. I began A Bridge for Business & STEM because I wanted to get into the habit of writing regularly with my eyes on a future book project. Second, merging business and technical topics together have always been of interest to me because that combination is so often missing in the work place and other settings.

To imply, however, that I could not have developed this blog on my own, nor that it could get noticed without someone else’s help never crossed my mind. And this was done outside of a traditional work environment. What that tells me is that this person is very ignorant about my professional and educational backgrounds despite us having worked together as volunteers for over 10 years. Or maybe they are overstating their perceived relevance and importance. Similar questions are asked and comments made each day about the capabilities of others with no information other than stereotypes to operate from.

Around the same time that Dr. Cross was posting her rant regarding the airline incident on FaceBook, The New York Times’s (NYT) deputy Metro editor, Michael Luo, wrote An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back to China. [Ref 1] His post was published online by NYT.  As Luo explains, he and his family were leaving church and heading to a restaurant for lunch on the Upper East Side of Manhattan when a woman standing down the block yells at him and the others with him: “Go back to China!” He yells back at her, “I was born in this country!”

Taken aback by this experience, Lao posts his experience to Twitter:

tweet_michaellao

Luo goes on to say: Maybe you don’t know this, but the insults you hurled at my family get to the heart of the Asian-American experience. It’s this persistent sense of otherness that a lot of us struggle with every day. That no matter what we do, how successful we are, what friends we make, we don’t belong. We’re foreign. We’re not American. 

He goes on to write: …But, afterward, my 7-year-old, who witnessed the whole thing, kept asking my wife, “Why did she say, ‘Go back to China?’ We’re not from China.”

No, we’re not, my wife said, and she tried to explain why you might have said that and why people shouldn’t judge others. We’re from America, she told my daughter. But sometimes people don’t understand that.

Luo’s open letter generated a number of responses from Asian Americans who shared their own stories of race and racism not just in New York City but across this country. Some of their stories are included in the New York Times video, #Thisis2016: Asian-Americans Respond. [Ref 2]

One of those persons who shared their experiences in this video is Dr. Karen Choy-Neffsen, a physician who has worked in several different cities and regions of this country. The one thing she notices regardless of where she has lived and worked is that this question often comes up: Where in the world did you ever learn to speak English so well? If I wasn’t looking at you or speaking to you on the phone, I would never think you are Oriental. This question never fails to take her aback considering the fact that she went to school in Boston and then Buffalo, New York. “So the first thing I think of myself as is a New Yorker,” says Choy-Neffsen, “not an Oriental.”  

The above experiences of Dr. Cross, Mr. Luo, Dr. Choy-Neffsen, myself, and others show that too many Americans are operating under false assumptions and realities. Why is that?  Isaac Lidsky gives a very good answer with this example in his TEDTalk: What reality are you creating for yourself? [Ref 3]:

When Dorothy was a little girl, she was fascinated by her goldfish. Her father explained to her that fish swim by quickly wagging their tails to propel themselves through the water. Without hesitation, little Dorothy responded, “Yes, Daddy, and fish swim backwards by wagging their heads.”

In her mind, it was a fact as true as any other. Fish swim backwards by wagging their heads. She believed it.

Our lives are full of fish swimming backwards. We make assumptions and faulty leaps of logic. We harbor bias. We know that we are right, and they are wrong. We fear the worst. We strive for unattainable perfection. We tell ourselves what we can and cannot do. In our minds, fish swim by in reverse, frantically wagging their heads, and we don’t even notice them.

alvin-toeffler_illiterate-or-21st-centuryAs Lidsky goes on to share in his talk, “Sight is an illusion. We create our own realities and the illusions that come with them.”

A question to my readers: What realities and illusions do you create when you engage with others who do not share your gender or ethnicity? Not that long ago, one of my partners and I were eliminated from the bidding process because the reviewer commented that I was not an engineer, and I didn’t have project management experience. Recall my credentials above, and add project management professional (PMP) certification and over 20 years of project and program management experience. The assumed stereotypes knocked me and my partner out of the bidding process; our proposal did not receive a proper evaluation. In Dr. Cross’ case, stereotypes could have cost a life!

“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”  Helen Keller

#ThisIs2016

References:

  1. An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back to China, by Michael Luo, October 9, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/nyregion/to-the-woman-who-told-my-family-to-go-back-to-china.html?_r=1
  1. Race in America – #thisis2016: Asian-Americans Respond, by John Woo and Yousur Al-Hlou, October 13, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/video/us/100000004706646/thisis2016-asian-americans-respond.html?smid=fb-share
  1. What Reality Are You Creating For Yourself, Isaac Lidsky, TEDSummit Filmed June 2016, https://www.ted.com/talks/isaac_lidsky_what_reality_are_you_creating_for_yourself

 

Updates: This post was updated on October 25, 2016 at 5:44 a.m. PDT.

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About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.

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