Ali Saleh is a senior international student who said his eye was caught by a table set up in Meldrum Science Center recently that said: “We Are Westminster.”
Saleh said he was then approached by two people he’d never met before, who asked him two questions: 1) What do you know about unconscious bias? and 2) Why might understanding bias be good for promoting inclusion at Westminster?
After he wrote his answer on a small whiteboard, he said a photograph was taken of him and posted to Westminster College’s Office for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion’s Instagram page with the hashtag ‘#knowyourbias.’
He wrote on the whiteboard, “It is important to understand our biases in order to understand how and why we think the way we do. -A.S.”
Saleh said he had never heard of the “We Are Westminster” campaign before coming across the table in Meldrum.
What is “We Are Westminster?”
Bias-awareness brings to light “unfair prejudice in favor of or against one thing, person or group compared with another,” said Ebony Tyler, a lead communication and program coordinator for the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Tyler also said people can hold biases “consciously or unconsciously.”
Autumn Thatcher, Westminster’s director of Publications and Managing, said the unity campaign is separated into three phases: awareness, know your bias and acceptance.
Thatcher said the goal of the campaign is more than just unity, however.
“That’s what we would hope, to see our campus community doing is coming together and being better humans and engaging with one another in a respectful manner and taking the time to learn about the lived experiences of others,” Thatcher said.
The campaign includes social media messaging, posters and tabling among other communication strategies, and the Marketing and Communication department won an Unsung Hero award at the MLK Unity Luncheon in January for their organization of the campaign.
Tyler said the campaign is important “because when you have these biases, you tend to limit who you are communicating with, who it is you are trying to get to know, and the way that you’re going to speak to these people.”
Tyler and co-communication and program coordinator Cathy Taylor said they were surprised with the ways the students answered the questions.
For example, some used written word while others used pictures and symbols. Some students responded with a comprehensive understanding of what unconscious bias is, while others needed an explanation.
However, explaining unconscious bias is tricky because of intangibility, Tyler said. She said she gave examples to students that needed help understanding such as a white woman clutching her purse tighter to her chest while she passes a black man on the street.
Although that reaction might not be one’s intent, Tyler said, the intent doesn’t matter because of the impact of the bias which further marginalizes minorities in society.
By the end of the interaction, the team said they usually received responses from students such as, ‘Oh, I get it!,” or “Oh, I’ve definitely done that.”
As a participant, Ali Saleh said that his experience is slightly different as an international student in a college in the U.S. And, with a last name and appearance that is not stereotypically Norwegian, Saleh said people generally do not believe that he is from Norway.
“Whenever I introduce myself as Ali, people say, ‘where are you from?’ and I say, ‘I am from Norway.’ Then they say, ‘Where are you really from?’” Saleh said. “Stuff like that is based on my name and my looks.”
Saleh said it is important to move past bias in order to broaden one’s point of view.
“In order to evolve past bias […] we have to acknowledge that we are different and that I have a different perspective than someone else,” Saleh said.
He said an example of an unconscious bias he has witnessed is within fellow science majors perceiving themselves as “better than” other majors.
“We need to look to different areas and think, ‘Oh, you guys are not the same, we are different,’” Saleh said. “It’s a different type of struggle. It’s not just ‘Oh, that is easy and this is hard.’”
The campaign coordinators said it’s important for them that students feel comfortable exposing their biases.
“I think it creates such a comfortable space when we’re able to talk to them about our own personal experiences with [our own biases], and then they’re able to open up more,” Taylor said.
They also said it is difficult to ask college students to reflect on their own prejudice.
“We went in with this knowing that it might be hard to get people to open up about these things because it’s uncomfortable,” Taylor said. “So, if we’re going to ask for their vulnerability, we have to be willing to offer up our vulnerability in return.”
Tyler and Taylor said they were pleasantly surprised by how many students were aware of their own biases.
Additionally, the response from other universities following the campaign on social media was unexpected like when Brigham Young University’s marketing team reached out inquiring about who ran the campaign, Tyler said.
“People are watching, people are engaging, and we’ve reached a wider audience than I was anticipating,” Tyler said.
Evidence of the campaign can be seen throughout campus in the form of black and white posters that show a statement of unconscious bias on the black side and a statement meant to correct that bias on the white side.
“We weren’t sure if people were going be engaged with it, maybe they’ll just walk by,” Tyler said. “[But, when] I heard about [the BYU phone call], it really made me sit back and think how we impacted people.”