Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Is It Possible To Unravel Unconscious Bias? Yassmin Abdel-Magied says people often make assumptions about her because she wears a hijab. She challenges people to recognize this as an unconscious bias—and learn to look a little deeper.
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Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Is It Possible To Unravel Unconscious Bias?

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Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Is It Possible To Unravel Unconscious Bias?

Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Is It Possible To Unravel Unconscious Bias?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So say you were just walking down the street and you happened to pass by a young woman wearing a traditional Islamic headscarf and loose-fitting clothing. What would you think of her? What assumptions would you make?

YASSMIN ABDEL-MAGIED: People generally assume that I'm a migrant. Maybe my English is not so good. Maybe - generally, there is an assumption that maybe I don't work. But there'll be sometimes small things that people will notice that make them think, well, maybe there's something a bit different here.

RAZ: This is Yassmin Abdel-Magied.

ABDEL-MAGIED: I think it depends on my mood that morning because if I'm in kind of a typical Londoner outfit, say, people will often assume I'm like some sort of musician, right? They're like, oh, you wear colorful clothing. You've got a nose ring. Oh, you must be a singer. Or you must be an artist. Like, especially because I'm a woman of color, people assume that if you're like a kind of creatively dressed woman of color, you're some sort of singer.

And I think it also depends on what country I'm in. If I'm in Australia, I'm seen as probably an outsider. If I'm in London, I'm probably seen as someone who's British. But nobody assumes I'm an engineer (laughter).

RAZ: Yassmin actually used to work on an offshore oil rig.

ABDEL-MAGIED: Yes. I'm a bunch of contradictions. I'm a Muslim. I am a light-skinned black woman. I spent the first chunk of my life as an engineer, so I studied mechanical engineering. Really loved motorsport, kind of went into that world, then ended up working on oil and gas rigs across Australia.

But now I'm a writer and broadcaster. And so I spent a lot of time in the creative space doing a lot of, sort of, advocacy and education around the themes of unconscious bias and how who we are in the world and our experiences shape the way that we go through the world and how that impacts on the people around us.

RAZ: Yeah. So there are assumptions that some people make based on all of the inputs that they've had through film and television and the news, that just seeing you, even - not even speaking to you - just that flash, that moment of passing you by, all those inputs create these assumptions.

And that's, I mean, and I think that's a reality in some places, right? Like some people would make those assumptions. And then there are all these things about you that have nothing to do with that, right? What are - what are the things that they could never know when they're passing by you?

ABDEL-MAGIED: Yeah. I think that generally no one would assume that I spent half a decade training as a boxer or that I ran a race car team - which I love telling people - or that I recently learnt to ski. And I really love skiing. And I'll tell you what people don't expect to see on ski slopes is a black Muslim woman.

Like, genuinely, I had a family say to me that when they see black people on the ski slopes, it's like, if they see a black person, it is a sign of good luck. And I was like, I don't know how I feel about that. Am I a leprechaun?

But it's, you know, people don't assume that someone like me does like things like that or join the sailing club because I really got into sailing - or even that I recently picked up learning to play bass. I think there are all these sorts of things that one can never tell from the sort of first glance. And - and especially I think in the case of Muslim people, the inputs that you have aren't unbiased inputs, right? They're politicized. There's agendas behind them. They're all these sorts of things.

And so I often say to people like, have you actually had a conversation with a Muslim person? You have all these views about Muslim women, when was the last time you sat down and actually heard a Muslim woman speak for herself? And if you haven't, then how could you possibly deign to think that you have an idea of what it's like to be a Muslim woman in this world? And just that first moment where we begin to question our assumptions and we begin to question or acknowledge the fact that the ideas that we have may not be rooted in evidence or truth, I think that's the moment that we can really build from.


RAZ: No matter who we are or where we come, from our assumptions and beliefs are shaped by our experiences, our upbringing, our race, our gender, religion, culture. And those beliefs help us navigate and make sense of everyday life. But they can also mean that we believe in certain things, things that also give us a distorted view of the world.

So today on the show, we're going to explore ideas around bias and perception, the bias in the technology we use or in the facts we choose to accept, and even the biased shortcuts our brains take that can cloud our judgment.

And for Yassmin Abdel-Magied, bias doesn't always happen consciously, it's just the filter we're seeing through. But she says we can recognise that bias and learn from it. Here's more from Yassmin on the TED stage.


ABDEL-MAGIED: If we want to live in a world where the circumstances of your birth do not dictate your future and where equal opportunity is ubiquitous, then each and every one of us has a role to play in making sure unconscious bias does not determine our lives. There's this really famous experiment in the space of unconscious bias, and that's in the space of gender in the 1970s and 1980s. So orchestras back in the day were made up mostly of dudes. There was - up to only 5 percent were female. And apparently that was because men played it differently, presumably better - presumably.

But in 1952, the Boston Symphony Orchestra started an experiment. They started blind auditions. So rather than face-to-face auditions, you would have to play behind a screen. Now funnily enough - right? - no immediate change was registered until they asked the auditioners to take their shoes off before they entered the room because the clickety-clack (ph) of the heels against the hardwood floors was enough to give the ladies away. Now, get this - the results of the audition showed that there was a 50 percent increased chance a woman would progress past the preliminary stage, and it almost tripled their chances of getting in.

What does that tell us? Well, unfortunately for the guys, men actually didn't play differently, but there was the perception that they did. And it was that bias that was determining their outcome. So what we're doing here is identifying and acknowledging that a bias exists. And look, we all do it, right? Here, let me give you an example.

A son and his father are in a horrible car accident, right? The father dies on impact, and the son who's severely injured is rushed to hospital. The surgeon looks at the son when they arrive and is like, I can't operate. Why? The boy is my son. How can that be?

Ladies and gentlemen, the surgeon is his mother. Now hands up - and it's OK - hands up if you initially assumed the surgeon was a guy. There's evidence that that unconscious bias exists, but we all just have to acknowledge that it's there and then look at ways that we can move past it so that we can look at solutions.

RAZ: I mean, the thing that I struggle with is that as much as I try to think of myself as a person who fights against my own biases, I would be lying if I said that I didn't also engage in that unconsciously.

ABDEL-MAGIED: Yeah. And, you know, I'm someone that has spoken about this topic in over 20 countries, and I also suffer from these moments and these biases. And I think - I was at a dinner the other day. And we were talking about, you know, interracial couples and that experience.

And then I sort of - I threw out to the table, I said, well, I'd love to hear from the white guys in the room. And I looked at this guy who was sitting next to me, and it was like it - he then said, well, it's funny that you looked at me because I'm not white, I'm half Filipino. And I'm white passing. But that's - I don't at all identify with the idea of white.

And it was fascinating because that was such a moment where I was like, oh, wow. You know, I'm someone that spends all my time talking about how to challenge our biases and assumptions, and here I am making assumptions about someone based on how they look. And so I think it's so important to acknowledge that we are wired as human beings, our brains are wired to make assumptions and make shortcuts essentially because we get too much information. Our brains receive all of this information, and we make shortcuts to make the cognitive load easier.

RAZ: You know, one of the things that I'm wondering - whether there's a reason behind this, there's a biological or an evolutionary reason why we have these ingrained biases. Like - and of course the simple explanation is sure, you know, on the savannahs, you know, early man had to make quick judgments. Like, is that beast going to attack me? Is this person from another tribe safe or unsafe? I mean, what do you think? Do you think there is a reason why - a biological reason why we humans are kind of wired to be biased?

ABDEL-MAGIED: I think so. I think a lot of - I think the research does show that our brains have developed some of these biases, some as protection mechanisms. So - because not all of these biases are about other people, right? Some of these biases are like confirmation bias. So when you think that something's true, your brain will take new information and use it to confirm what you already believe rather than challenge it. Or affinity bias, which is kind of what we're talking about, which is we like people that are like ourselves.

We have all sorts of cognitive shortcuts around colors. So red, for example, is like danger and hunger and so on. So our brains have all of these shortcuts, and some of those shortcuts relate to other people. And I do think that, historically, how were you supposed to know who to trust, right?

Like, if you didn't have an international or a global or a kind of an understanding of what was right and wrong, the only way that you knew what was safe was, well, the people I know who are around me, my family or my tribe, I know them. And I understand that they have the same values as me. And so anything else is a threat until proven otherwise. And also, if you think about how the brain is developed, you've got your amygdala, which is kind of the reptilian part of the brain. And that's very much fight or flight.

But we also have the prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of the brain which can override that amygdala, which can say, all right, I have a fight or flight instinct. But I can override that and be like, well, actually, this person might be visually in my outgroup, but I can engage with that person. Or I'm evolved enough as a human being to know that anyone who looks like me doesn't automatically have to be a threat.

And so I think that's kind of where we are in civilization's evolution. We're at the point where we actually can be better than our quote, unquote, "natural instinct." And when people say, well, it is, you know, we're biologically wired to be biased, that might be true. But we can learn to manage those natural impulses to live in a civilized society in a better manner.

The advice that I usually give is to go through the world with curiosity. And I think recognize that, yes, we can have an idea of what someone might be, but that's not the same as assuming that is how that person is.

RAZ: Coming up in just a moment, Yassmin Abdel-Magied on how bias plays out in the real world with real consequences and how we can all try to be a little better. On the show today, ideas around bias and perception. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about bias and perception. And before the break, we were hearing from Yassmin Abdel-Magied. She writes a lot about the role that bias plays in our everyday lives. And that feeling - that feeling of being judged solely on assumptions and preconceived notions - it's something that Yassmin has experienced firsthand.

I want to ask you about something I read, which - I guess last year, you were on your way to the U.S. to speak at a conference about this very issue - about bias. And you got to the U.S. You land, and you go through the - what many Americans don't experience 'cause it's not an anxiety-inducing experience for Americans with passports. But for visitors to the U.S., there's this moment where you have to go through a border agent. And it can be quite unpleasant. What happened to you?

ABDEL-MAGIED: Yeah. So I was flying to the U.S. And it is always quite a nerve-wracking experience - also because I was born in Sudan, and Sudan was one of the countries that was put on the Muslim ban list. And there's always been a little bit of anxiety about that. And previous to the Muslim ban, Obama actually introduced this sort of list of countries that couldn't have an ESTA or what's called a visa waiver to enter the U.S. So as an Australian citizen, anyone could apply for this visa waiver, which meant you kind of could go in quite easily. But since I was born in Sudan, I could no longer be eligible for that.

And so I got to the border, and the agent said to me, why don't you have an ESTA? And I said, oh, you know, because I'm born in Sudan. I'm not really allowed or qualified for that. And he sort of looked at me, and he was like, OK. Well, we're just going to take you aside for further questioning to find out why you were denied an ESTA. And then I get to another border agent, and the woman says to me, what are you here to do? And I said, you know, I'm here to speak at this event, so on and so on. And she was like, well, look. That sounds to me like work and not business, and this is a business visa. So we're going to send you back. And I was like, no, no, no. I don't understand. Like, I'm on a visa that has been recommended to me by the state consulate. Like, to my mind, everything had been fine. But border agents have quite a lot of discretion around this sort of thing. And also, it's not an environment where you have much power. You're not actually - you're in international space. You don't have - the agent actually said to me - he's like, the only rights you have are those under the Geneva Convention. You can't call a lawyer. They confiscated my phone. They then sort of sat me down and booked my flight - straight away booked my flight back to London, where I'd flown from. And that was the end of that. And in fact, they said, if you refuse to get on this plane voluntarily, we will ban you from the United States for five years.

And I mean, I can't - to take you through what that feels like, my first response was anger. I was like, how can this be happening? I've done everything right. I had people waiting for me at the gate, you know, picking me up to take me to this event. And so, you know, it was just - this wasn't supposed to be a thing. And then all of a sudden, where I was born became a thing. And all - there was a series of questions that were sort of increasingly aggressive and so on. You start to become quite angry and quite defensive. And you're like, what's going on? This isn't fair. And then you have a moment where you realize you are literally powerless. And because of who you are - a Sudanese-born Muslim woman - nothing else matters. And it was such a humiliating experience and one that really made you feel so small and takes away your dignity in a way that very little else does. You know, that experience would've been very different if I was a different person.

RAZ: Yeah.

ABDEL-MAGIED: If I looked different, if I was born in a different country, that experience would be very, very different. And I think it's moments like that, where you are reduced to the identity that you are, that reminds you of still how important this work is and how much work there is to be done.

RAZ: Even if we do acknowledge the reality of bias and unconscious bias, I mean, do you really think it's possible to unravel it?

ABDEL-MAGIED: I mean, I think we spend a lot of time worrying about if we're good or bad people. The reality is that we all have these biases. And if we are open and transparent about it, it then gives other people the opportunity to call us out or call us in kindly if those biases do occur so that we can get better. And that is the dream, right? That is the aspiration. But I think if we collectively ask ourselves and push ourselves to be unconsciously unbiased, then that's the best place to be.

RAZ: That's Yassmin Abdel-Magied. She's a writer and a broadcaster. You can see her full talk at ted.com.

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