The past year has been a reminder that we must all work through our implicit biases. Some may argue that implicit bias causes little to no real harm. However, several studies recognize implicit bias as a potential contributor to hate crimes. Some of you may ask why we need to spend time and other resources on the issue of implicit bias. May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Awareness Month. Therefore, I will focus this article on the implications and impacts implicit bias has had on the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community. Media coverage has focused on the uptick of hate crimes against Asian Americans this past year. The hateful rhetoric by some elected and government officials, including referring to COVID-19 by such hateful rhetoric as the “Chinese Virus” or “Wuhan Virus” led to the rise of assaults against the AAPI community.
This rhetoric helped to refuel an undercurrent of historical bias that stretches well past this year. As Valerie Colas, president of the Multnomah Bar Association states in the April 2021 issue of Multnomah Lawyer:
“This surge of anti-Asian hate is a part of a long legacy that intensifies whenever people are panicked about disease or economic turmoil. Chinese immigrants have long been scapegoats for disease. In the early 1900s, officials blamed Asian residents for bringing the bubonic plague outbreak to San Francisco and quarantined San Francisco’s Chinatown. In Oregon, from 1870-1885, there was an expansion of anti-Chinese sentiment. Mobs drove out Chinese immigrants. Likewise, Japanese Americans have suffered and experienced acts of violence, exclusion, and harassment, especially during and after World War II. It is important for us to understand this history of anti-Asian hate to be able to combat and address it today.
We also must understand the important role that we play in witnessing and stopping hate. We cannot remain silent as AAPI community members are attacked. We must be part of creating a safer community by addressing words, jokes, slights, and comments that have ignited those racist and violent acts.”
Fred Rogers famously said, “Look for the helpers.” Lawyers pride themselves on being helpers. Many of us went to law school for the specific purpose of using our skills to help others. The AAPI community has often been considered invisible and silent, and so the discrimination they experience has not been understood. We can support our Asian American colleagues by bearing witness both inside and outside the legal community. The AAPI community needs allies and advocates, and we can be both.
That is why work on implicit bias is so important. Implicit bias in the workplace takes many forms. It impacts our recruitment, hiring, and retention policies. Before the onset of COVID-19, many workplaces, law firms included, were reluctant to support remote work models. We didn’t want to change because the traditional model was how it had always been done. That model was a barrier to many, including those who are caregivers to older family members or young children, and members of the disabled community. In the past year, we have learned that we can be as productive working remotely as we were in the traditional office work model. Remote work and flexible hours have made continuing to work this past year possible. By listening to our colleagues and being adaptable, we have been able to work and grow. Working towards eliminating implicit bias opens doors to a happier and more productive workplace.
While working on your implicit biases, remember two approaches: welcoming and accommodating. Both approaches include doing some research and homework to keep current with trends and needs. They diverge in how engaged they are with the group of people they are hoping to include in the workplace.
The welcoming approach means wanting to change and improve the workplace. The welcoming change approach involves open, and sometimes difficult, communication. It acknowledges that each person we engage with is sharing their lived experiences, and cannot be expected to represent everyone in that demographic. It also acknowledges that we evolve as people. Our lived experiences and needs change at different stages of our careers and lives. The welcoming approach includes space to periodically check in with our colleagues and make the necessary improvements to meet the needs of our law practices and those who work there.
It is important that we are adaptable in meeting the needs of our friends and colleagues. This approach acknowledges that what works for me may not necessarily work for you. By inviting the people into the change-making process, you give them ownership. You engage them and show that they are valued. A great example of how this works is described in the book “Black Nerd Problems,” by William Evans and Omar Holman. They describe a scene in the Spiderman Multiverse. The older white Spiderman, Peter Parker, is working with the teen Afro-Latin Spiderman, Miles Morales, to fix a problem with the webslinger. Peter listened to Miles when he explained that a webslinger that worked for Peter wouldn’t work for Miles. To quote the book, “Peter, being the only Spiderman for so long, assumed he was the default and what worked for him should work for Miles. However, they aren’t the same person. Therefore, those differences hinder Miles instead of help.” Peter listened to Miles and acknowledged that what worked for him did not work for Miles. Peter wasn’t locked into the “it works for me it should work for you” mindset.
A real-world example of the welcoming approach is the implicit bias that Zoom meetings work best in the work-from-home world. A member of our Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Committee who is hearing impaired informed us at the time that Google Meets had better closed captioning options. We started having our meetings over Google Meets. It was an easy fix that made our meetings more inclusive.
The accommodating approach involves making change because you have to, like the reluctant student who is forced to finish an assignment. In this approach, you may believe that things are working just fine, and only make changes because you are ordered to make them. In this approach, change happens, but there are underlying tensions and resentments that don’t get addressed. Those who are accommodated are made to feel as if they are a burden, rather than a valued member of the team. In the examples given above, our chair may have chosen to keep meetings on Zoom, since that is where most of the online meetings were happening. Or Peter Parker could have blamed Miles for not being able to use the webslinger that worked for Peter.
A final piece to this puzzle that deserves some attention is compassion fatigue. This has been a heck of a year. Most of us want to do the right thing and support our friends and colleagues. Many of us have at various points this past year dealt with compassion fatigue. It is okay to spend some time recharging. Let your friends and colleagues know that you are and will always be there for them. However, to be your best self and be present and available to them, you need to recharge.
The key, as in most of life, is clear and honest communication. Please be mindful that not everyone may have the luxury to step away. This is especially true if your compassion fatigue is closely connected to their lived-in experiences. They may not be able to tap out. This is particularly true for our friends and colleagues who have intersectional identities that are impacted by implicit bias and hate crimes.
Reach out to your friends and colleagues and check in on them. Stand with them and support them. This can be something as simply asking how they are doing and what they need. It can be something deeper and more engaging, such as working towards debiasing your recruiting, hiring, and retention policies.
For those who choose to acknowledge and work toward removing their specific implicit biases, many resources are available. The Law Practice Division’s own Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Committee (DEIB) is working on two programs that will help guide attorneys on this journey. The first is a groundbreaking pilot program that will provide hands-on tools and strategies to work on de-biasing the law firm employment cycle from recruitment through retention. The LP DEIB Committee is currently seeking qualified candidates, which at present, comes at no cost. For more information, please contact Katy Goshtasbi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The second program is a book club/roundtable where we will be discussing Caste by Isabel Wickerson. This book changes the lens of this discussion from race to caste. It is a thoughtful read, and we hope that you can join us when we discuss it.
About the Author
Lori Hymowitz is a staff attorney with Stolle Berne in Portland, OR. Contact Lori on Twitter @HymowitzL.