Having a “Mediterranean” nose could actually hinder your chances to get a seat at the University of Yale in the mid-twentieth century, says Dan A. Oren in his book Joining the Club – A History of Jews and Yale. The admission panel was so prejudiced against Jews that they came up with a “tactful” code to restrict their enrolment: rejecting an application based on the shape of a candidate’s nose! Even though such blatant discrimination is unimaginable today, the fact that it existed in the 1940s has a lesson for all of us, according to Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard University professor of social ethics.
According to Banaji, we underestimate the extent of influence our unconscious biases have. Research reveals that despite the best of intentions, most people harbour deep-seated resistance to the “different”, where the difference is defined by factors like race, gender, ethnicity, age or physical characteristics, or more subtle ones like background, personality type or experiences. To illustrate this, Dr. Banaji drew on two photo captions in the aftermath of Hurricane Katarina. The caption for the photo of a black woman carrying goods on her head said she had “looted” it. A similar photo of a white couple said they “found” the goods.
The good news however is that it is possible to overcome hidden biases. The first step is to be honest with ourselves about the blind spots we have. “Comfort with diversity is an acquired taste, just like single malt Scotch. But we already embrace and encourage it in a variety of spheres. Like for instance diversity in a financial portfolio, diversity in out nutrient intake and the conscious effort to keep the gene pool diverse by not marrying our cousins!” says Dr. Banaji