One hundred people paired up and observed one another without saying a word.
The group gathered at the Radcliffe Institute’s Knafel Center on April 24 had a purpose: to make written judgments about the other based solely on appearance. The point? Judging people solely on appearance, without further efforts to know them, can result in unconscious bias.
Understanding difference requires looking beyond the superficial, said the actor, author, and activist Michael Sidney Fosberg, whose solo show “Incognito” has appeared onstage since 2000.
Fosberg’s workshop, “Cultural Competence: A Best Practice for Neutralizing Bias,” demonstrated how being culturally competent, or having a better understanding of other cultures, can help create a healthy, more productive workplace.
The event was the final installment of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Diversity Dialogues for the academic year and was sponsored by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Office, FAS Human Resources, and the Radcliffe Institute.
“The one-on-ones with strangers in the [Knafel Center] elicited questions, assumptions, and judgments that, regardless of how innocent and harmless they are, can easily lead to a path of bias,” said Chirajeet Sen, recruiting manager at Harvard Business School.
“The dialogue was very helpful and eye-opening,” Sen said. “As a human-resources professional, it enables me to be more self-aware and open to people with different personalities and from different backgrounds. Starting a dialogue and looking at things that we easily take for granted is why this event will be helpful in my workplace.”
Deborah Valdovinos, events coordinator in the History of Science Department, agreed. “This and the other diversity dialogues have empowered me to discuss and deal with diversity-related issues in my workplace,” she said. “As an employee of color who has experienced different and challenging workplace realities, I find the diversity dialogues to be a safer venue, where the complex and at times highly charged issues around diversity can be productively discussed.”
The dialogues “give me the opportunity to not only reflect on my own implicit bias, but to feel the power of coming together as a group to recognize how pervasive our inclination to judge others truly is,” said Heidi Wickersham, administrative coordinator with the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations. “I appreciate that the University has taken the first steps in trying to ameliorate their impact in our work within FAS by encouraging dialogue. I hope to see continued dialogue on these issues with an emphasis on creating guidelines for staff and administrators to help improve attitudes and overcome bias, and toward a community commitment to proactively create a more inclusive environment for faculty, staff, and students of all backgrounds.”