Implicit Bias ~ Face to Face

I know when I first recognized my own implicit bias about gender. It was in the Fall of 2006 during a high school speech tournament in Helena Montana. I’d volunteered to judge the Lincoln Douglas debates and, along with a few other adults, was tired from a long day of civil argument as we sat to evaluate the final, prize-winning round.

The realities of gender inequality were not new to me. I was a fifty-two year old woman who had graduated from a women’s college at the peak of 1970’s Feminism. Over decades of work in film production, computer animation, and the Web, my primary colleagues were all men. Some of them, like my son’s father, were generous collaborators in favor of opportunity for all people. The majority, though, were male endowment heirs intent on seizing personal trophies. Harassment was surprising only when absent.

The Lincoln Douglas debate style takes its name from the original 1858 match between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas which focused primarily on slavery.  Now practiced mostly in high school speech tournaments, topics commonly center on moral questions argued between two people who are assigned either the affirmative or negative position.  The topic for the final round in Helena was: Civil disobedience in a democracy is morally justified.

The young contestants, a male and female, were both attractive, white, successful high school Seniors probably destined for law school.  Both were tall and well-groomed in conventional, tailored clothing. The young women had every sartorial detail crisp, tucked and aligned. In contrast, there was a noticeable rumple in the young man’s shirt. His tie, striped classic blue and red, was loosely knotted and slightly askew, suggesting an ivy league rebel.  

Throughout the debate, the young woman’s arguments were the most compelling and well-conceived, clearly affirming that civil disobedience is morally justified in a democracy. Her delivery was sincere and precise. I naturally agreed with her position.

Perhaps to mask his own distaste for having to support the negative view, the young man adopted a casually entertaining sarcasm that even highlighted the weakness in his argument, yet somehow also made it more appealing. Culture had granted him a wider range of persuasive tools than to his opponent.  On her, this approach would likely have seemed sloppy.  On him, though, it was charming and confident.  I found myself wanting to call him the winner.

Even the most intelligent and analytic of us will rely on cultural “rules of thumb” in everyday life. Acting without thinking because the situation appears to be “without question”. Face to face, these two young people seemed so evenly matched. Before laying down my final marks, I did shake off the enchantment of cultural mythology and gave the rightful win to the young woman.  But I had to consciously recognize and question my own conditioned bias in order to do it.