Zero Discrimination Day: Understanding Unconscious Bias in Ourselves and Others 

Understanding Unconscious Bias

As mental health professionals, I’m pretty sure we’re all well informed on the concepts of bias – conscious or unconscious. We have a professional ethic to combat bias in any shape or form.

But bias is nuanced, and it can show without us knowing if we don’t give it the awareness it needs throughout our days, lives, and professions.

This Zero Discrimination Day, I wanted to take a moment to highlight how bias might show up in our work within immigration evaluations.

What is Zero Discrimination Day?

Zero Discrimination Day takes place on the 1st of March annually. It celebrates the right of everyone to live a full and productive life with dignity.

Zero Discrimination Day highlights how people can become informed about and promote inclusion, compassion, peace, and, above all, a movement for change. It’s a global movement of solidarity to end all forms of discrimination – and we all have a part to play in this.

What is Bias?

Bias is a prejudice in favor of or against something, a person, or group compared with another. Biases may be held by an individual, group, or institution and can have negative or positive consequences.

We all have biases we act on  whether we’re aware of it or not. Bias can have a real and detrimental impact on our communities.

There are two main types of bias:

  1. Conscious Bias  (also known as Explicit Bias): Conscious bias can be characterized by overt negative behavior, expressed through physical and verbal harassment or more subtle means such as purposeful exclusion. Individuals acting from conscious bis are fully aware of what they’re doing and why.
  2. Unconscious Bias  (also known as Implicit Bias): Unconscious bias involves attitudes beyond our common perceptions reinforced by stereotypes, our environment, and experiences. Individuals are not generally aware they’re acting from unconscious bias.

Although racial bias and discrimination are well documented, biases exist toward any social group based on age, gender, gender identity, physical abilities, religion, sexual orientation, weight, and many other characteristics.

Unconscious Bias from Clients

One core part of our work where we might encounter unconscious bias is our clients.

Immigrants have long histories, complex experiences, and often unacknowledged biases around how these experiences inform their worldview – especially around the immigration process and their mental health.

Bias might have been developed if a client:

  • Has had several visas rejected in the past.
  • Has difficulty getting help, support, or feedback on why their visa was denied.
  • Had poor experiences with medical or mental health practitioners or mental health assessments in the past.
  • Holds strong ideas or bias around mental health in general.

Knowing this can help us moderate our responses if we sense a client is resistant, reluctant, or hostile towards us. Reserving our judgment and considering what bias might be at play can help us make informed decisions about how we support these clients.

Providing them with a new, positive, and supportive experience can help undo some of this bias.

Unconscious Bias from Lawyers and Other Professionals

In our line of work, we’ll come into contact with a wide range of professions, including immigration lawyers and other legal professionals.

Once more, these people will come with their own set of experiences – both good and bad – and these will inform how they perceive and engage with us and our clients.

Bias might have developed if:

  • They have had a higher percentage of rejected experiences pursuing certain immigration pathways (which may lead them to reject supporting other clients pursuing this form of immigration relief).
  • They’ve had negative experiences with a certain ethnic group – either within their own practice or in their personal life. Perhaps they still hold outdated biases’ learned from their families in childhood.
  • They’ve had a poor experience with other mental health professionals conducting evaluations; perhaps they failed to deliver on outcomes, were always late, failed to show up, or canceled appointments. Maybe they weren’t as experienced or knowledgeable as they said.

All of these things can show up in subtle ways – and people often aren’t aware they are acting from them. By holding space and awareness ourselves, we can hopefully work together to reduce the impact of any unconscious bias and help put in place positive experiences that can help to reduce them long term.

Unconscious Bias as Mental Health Professionals

And lastly, we need to explore the biases we might hold. Because bias can creep in gradually over time, we must consider how and when this might happen so we can work to correct it where needed.

Bias might be developed if:

  • We might have a bias towards using or avoiding certain types of evaluation processes or assessments, which might not always work in the best favor of individual clients.
  • We’ve had poor experiences with immigration lawyers, legal advisors, or other professionals in the space.
  • We’ve had negative experiences with a certain ethnic group – either in the workplace or in our personal lives.

Remember, bias isn’t necessarily bad, but if you don’t act to uncover, acknowledge and reassess how bias is showing up in your life and work, those you aim to support may lose out.

Keep Working on Your Bias

Bias is a part of being human and comes into play in many of our decisions and interactions – for better or worse.

Bringing our biases to conscious space takes continual work, and it’s worth dedicating even a small part of your week to exploring the ways bias exists in your life and how it might show up. This will help you as a professional, your clients, and other working relationships.

Cecilia Racine: Immigration Evaluation Therapist

I’m Cecilia Racine, and I teach therapists how to help immigrants through my online courses. As a bilingual immigrant myself, I know the unique perspective that these clients are experiencing. I’ve conducted over 500 evaluations and work with dozens of lawyers in various states. Immigrants are my passion, I believe they add to the fabric of our country.

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