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Letter to the Editor: a clarification on unconscious bias

Dear Editor,

Can a sign make a difference? Maybe. It likely depends on the effectiveness of the “visual” appeal (readability), the “curb” appeal (location/placement), and the “idea” appeal (message).

The general purpose of signage is to direct our behavior, such as to attend an event or to respond to an idea. This is exactly what MAT graduate student Elizabeth Emery did in a productive way by writing a letter to The Forum about the signs for the “We Are Westminster” bias awareness campaign.

Emery’s letter acknowledged the purpose of the bias awareness signage to provoke thought and to encourage self-reflection. However, the letter’s description of (unconscious) bias as something that “exists primarily as a manifestation of bad thoughts” inspired this response as a way to clarify exactly what bias is and how it impacts our lived experiences and interactions.

As noted on the “We Are Westminster” Bias Response web page, bias is defined as the act of “treating an individual or group negatively because of their actual or perceived” belonging or membership in a (usually marginalized, non-dominant social/cultural) group identity. Such identities include, but are not limited to, age, (dis)ability, accent, ethnic or national origin, gender identity/expression, race, religion, sexual orientation or even weight. As bias — in either its explicit (conscious) or implicit (unconscious or hidden) form — operates as an instance of prejudice (a preconceived opinion formed outside of knowledge, reason or actual experience) or favoritism (offering preferential treatment to an individual or group at the expense of another), it is “institutionalized into policies, practices, and structures, which dehumanizes people, erodes individual rights, debilitates morale, and interferes with the effectiveness of work and learning environments.”

As outlined in The Forum’s March 28 article Westminster College wants to know, do you #knowyourbias?, the bias awareness campaign is part of a comprehensive effort to institutionalize diversity, equity, and inclusion on our campus. This occurred in part through the establishment of an executive-level chief diversity officer role created in October 2016 and held by Marco Barker, Ph.D. until his departure in February 2019. As the incoming Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer, I look forward to continuing the work that Dr. Barker formalized to strengthen inclusive excellence on our campus, especially in our academic and administrative structures, policies, and practices.

Can a sign make a difference? Sure. Did the “We Are Westminster” signs make a difference? I think so. The signs prompted Emery’s letter to the editor and subsequently, this response. Let’s continue to talk about how our individual and collective biases contribute to how we interact with one another. Let’s continue to work together to build a thriving campus community for all.

Together, we are Westminster.

Tamara N. Stevenson, Ed.D.

Associate Professor, Communication

Interim Vice President, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer

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