Unconscious Bias and Personal Work
Every museum professional must do personal work to face unconscious bias
Unconscious bias refers to our automatic, often-unspoken beliefs about various social groups. These hidden assumptions—also referred to as implicit or unintentional bias—influence how we judge others’ competency. They shape our expectations for human interaction and form the basis of prejudicial actions.
We all have unconscious biases. The urge to evaluate is an innate human response. Social and behavioral scientists note that the “ability to distinguish friend from foe helped early humans survive.”¹
Unconscious bias matters to museums because it affects our decisions about who belongs in museum leadership and how we reach out to audiences. It influences how we set salaries, craft job descriptions, promote employees, and design interior and exterior spaces. Learning to identify our biases can help us intentionally think again: even if our first impulses are prejudicial, our next thoughts and steps don’t have to be.
This internal, personal work is work. It calls for study, skill-building, and practice. As working group member Chris Taylor has noted, “Inclusion requires knowledge, skills, and abilities that are not wholly taught to museum professionals through training programs…We cannot expect our field to do this work through osmosis.”² Once museum professionals identify our biases, we can move toward managing them through empathy and action-oriented strategies. Recommended steps for developing these skills include:
- unconscious bias training
- exploring unconscious bias resources from other fields
- intercultural competence assessments
- cultural competency training
- self-awareness work (e.g., personality and leadership style surveys)
These skills can be built at the individual or organizational level; the steps are the same. Self-work strengthens the foundation for institutional work.
Call to action:
You and your team can identify available practitioners who can facilitate this work. You can also take the Harvard Implicit Association Test for free online to help identify your own unconscious biases. You can then host a brown-bag discussion around your experiences or agree to share your results in a safe and respectful conversation.