Alumni Share: Understanding Unconscious Bias

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Podcast Transcript

Shabnam:   Welcome to the Boren Around the World podcast, a podcast by the National Security Education Program for Boren awardees, language lovers and federal service enthusiasts. In today’s episode, we will be speaking with Anu Gupta, a 2004 Boren scholar who studied Urdu in India. Anu is a lawyer, scientist, and the founder and CEO of Be More America. He’s a sought-after expert in breaking bias, adult learning, and psychosocial well-being. Anu has logged 10000 hours of meditation and developed Be More’s data-driven methodology after conducting decade-long research on the causes of and solutions to racial and gender bias. Thank you for joining us Anu.

Anu:            Thank you so much for having me Shabnam.

Shabnam:   Of course! To start us off, I'd like to discuss your work on mindfulness and unconscious bias. You've researched the topic quite extensively and consulted on it as well. So, what motivated you to pursue this work, and why have you made this your mission?

Anu:            First of all, I’ll say that I’m so thrilled to be back in touch with the Boren scholar’s community, and to be on this podcast. I think my journey around this work really began with this particular program. I was a 2004 scholar, it's been 16 years since I was a part of the program, but the program really allowed me to delve into a culture that is very similar to my own. My family is Indian American, but they are not of the Islamic faith, and what I was doing as an undergrad was really studying Islam and language certainly it’s one way to understand – it’s like a gateway to an entirely different culture. Studying Urdu and then subsequently Persian, Farsi, it really allowed me to appreciate the various nuances that go into culture, and that's been pretty much my professional journey.

After college I lived in South Korea, worked in Myanmar, and then pursued a degree in human development at Cambridge, and all of those thing’s kind of got me in touch with various cultures and ways of being and doing. I think for me, besides addressing racial bias, really came from those experiences, really starting out in India when I was there in Hyderabad in 2004, it was right around the time that there were a lot of farmer suicides that were taking place across the country, particularly in the region that is now known as Telangana but at the time was known as Andhra Pradesh, and the suicides were actually taking place amongst what is better known as the Untouchable caste or the godless of India, because they were unable to pay debts that they owed to their debtors. It was at that time that I really became fascinated with this idea of casts itself, and of course that permeates religious differences in India and South Asia as a whole and how people are born into a subservient way of being.

So that really caught my imagination early on and after my graduate work at Cambridge I went to law school in the U.S and began noticing a lot of similarities between that system of caste in India and the system of racial separation and racial divisions in the U.S and other countries as well. I was surprised to see how a lot of leading Scholars like that Isabel Wilkerson and Michelle Alexanders have used that similar terminology of a caste based hierarchy to define race,  as someone who has always been really interested in public service and social change, I wanted to do something about it as opposed to just saying what is wrong with our country, with our systems, I wanted to see how we can begin to bring people together to foster understanding and really create more equity and belonging in our nation. So that's kind of how the work began. One of my favorite quotes of the U.S president is by President Dwight Eisenhower, who once said that there's nothing that is wrong with America that can't be fixed or corrected with the faith of our people, so that's basically why I'm doing this work now.

Shabnam:   What would you say are the costs of unconscious bias?

Anu:            So the way that I started this work was really around research and wanting to understand the who, what when, where and why of bias as it operates in our brain. Exactly as you asked, how that impact people's behavior, we work - about half of our work is in the healthcare sector, and unconscious bias as a whole has at least 35 billion dollars of immediate costs to our system on an annual basis. This is of course anything from repeat visits to diagnosis that happens with a provider, a doctor or nurse, to the multiplier effect of how it impacts individuals, their ability to work, to earn, and then how that impacts their families and communities. So, to give you an example, there was a study done by one of our partners that really assessed perceptions among doctors around pain, and we found that you know many doctors are unable to see - like their pain - when they assess pain thresholds for darker skin patients, they see a difference. There are some fundamental beliefs that they have, such as dark skin can withstand more pain or it's less sensitive when it comes to pain, which then impacts your ability to prescribe pain medication to those patients. That has a huge cost, these are just perceptions that are incorrect, and for us it’s like these perceptions can be corrected.

We're now living through the Covid-19 crisis, a pandemic across the nation, and we're seeing, beginning to see the impacts of unconscious bias particularly in the clinician and the patient interaction and how it's affecting minority communities, African Americans, and others more acutely than other communities. Now for me, I don’t think doctors and nurses wake up in the morning thinking like ‘hey I'm going to go provide biased care today’ right? Very few people that, so as someone who is the son of providers, both my parents are doctors, my older sister is a doctor, that’s - that would be thing that is anathema to them, yet that's the nature of unconscious bias, they are learned habits of thought. Not only do they create a massive financial cost, but they also create social cost and continues to create inequality and also just a whole lot of human suffering, both in our country and in other countries. For me, it’s more of a way for us to build a movement to transform that together.

Shabnam:   I’ve actually watched your TED talks and some of your presentations about unconscious bias and you talk about bias being an algorithm of the mind that can be hacked, because ultimately bias is learned, and it can be unlearned.

Anu:            Exactly

Shabnam:   One thing that really resonated with me is that when you explained that we aren’t really seeing one another, but were seeing ideas of one another, and you explained this whole phenomenon of bias through a model and that model was order, disorder, and reorder. What does it mean to go through order, disorder and reorder?

Anu:            That’s a great question. Basically, what happens is, all of us, because of where we’re born, with whom were born, our education, all of those experiences helped shape how we see ourselves and other people. Now for us, for me in particular, that is my story too, right? I grew up in a bi-cultural environment, my family is of Indian-origin, I grew up in New York City, but I was also surrounded by so much diversity. You know Queens County, where my family is from is the most diverse County in the entire world, the people that live there are from 192 nations and a lot of those people really went to school with me, I grew up with them and I think those experiences really colored how I saw the world. That was what order was for me, and then the disorder really happened for me when I started learning, when I started college and graduate school and law school, and I began to see that the world that I grew up with, the world that I loved, wasn't how it was. I was able to see how injustice and inequity operate in our system, and not at the conscious cost of any one particular person, but it’s kind of become part of our design, and I want to transform things, and it's going to require the collective to really transform it. I know that there's so much passion and energy and thoughtfulness that so many people have, but we need basically to help them see better, right? To be able to then inform solutions to these challenges we face. That is the work of reorder now that we're doing.

For me what's really exciting about our interview today is I really feel that a lot of this work is going to be done by the next generation, generations like mine which is the Millennials, but also gen Z, the current and upcoming Boren Scholars who are thinking about these challenges, who are really passionate about these challenges, but also looking at these challenges from their own lived experiences.  I think what we know from the research is that younger people really value cultural diversity and knowledge of the other, and not just from a place of tolerance, but a place of celebration, from a place of curiosity, from a place of bridge building. That is the work of this reorder right? We're kind of beginning to really transform our country and our world to really reflect these deeper values that we hold.

Shabnam:   You raised the thought that if we didn’t live in the ideas of one another, but in the presence of another, the world would look like a much better place, but how can we as individuals and we as a society determine whether we are truly living in the presence of one another?

Anu:            That’s such a beautiful question that you’ve asked. One of my, you know - one of the people that look up to is of course Dr. Martin Luther King, and one of the things he said about our nation was - our goal is to build up a beloved community, and that will require a qualitative shift in our hearts, and a quantitative shift in our lives. Now it’s a beautiful quote it’s written everywhere, and we probably see it like a thousand times a year, but you know, basically he gave us where we need to be right? The beloved community and what that’s going to require, these qualitative and quantitative shifts, but he didn't tell us what those shifts were, because I feel he knew deep down inside that it is people like you and I and the listener's here who have to determine what those shifts are. For me, living in the presence of one another really requires us to have tools to become aware, more mindful of one another, become more curious of one another, help one another, become better listeners and be able to ask better questions of one another. Fundamentally what really brings all of these skills together is the idea and the appreciation that we’re all in this together, we're all human beings, and that's our primary identity, being human. All these identities around nationality, around race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religious background, yes, they're important, they’re important to get our secondary identities to the primary identity of being human.

Shabnam:   That’s such a beautiful way you've described this Anu, new thank you for that. I think one final thought that I have is that we as the Boren community, we’re citizens of our country, that we're global citizens as well, and we’re going to be bridge builders as well. So how can we as individuals really hone into that, and become those bridge builders in a world that often times can be very divided?

Anu:            Right. First of all, I say Amen to that. It would be my hope that, you know, Boren scholars now and in the past are bridge builders of the future, and I don't have an answer, I have a thought, I have an insight from my experience on how you could do that. In my experience you know having lived in several countries, having study different languages, it really informed my ability to have empathy and compassion for what is perceived to be another. Better that you know Boren’s living in the Muslim communities in Hyderabad in India or living in rural South Korea where nobody spoke a word of English to working in Myanmar with monastic monks, again these were people that were so far removed from anything I had grown up with, but those same experiences that allowed me to have a radical sense of compassion and empathy. For example when I was working as a law student in the courtrooms in New Orleans and we were basically watching sentencing of pretty much young black boys ages between 13 to 16, that were being sentenced for some offences they had committed, but I couldn’t believe that they were going to jail for 2, 3, 4 years for breaking cell phones or trespassing on property, and someone who was - who went to law school because of my love for our Democratic principles and what our country stands for, the level of disgust I felt in my gut was, you know, I couldn't even verbalize it, because that's what, to me, felt like injustice. Now I'm not black, I'm certainly not impoverished like a lot of the individuals who were in those defendant boxes, but I don't think we need to be that way, what I felt was at a real human level, and that is what I think our – not just what I think, what I hope Boren scholars have the ability to offer to our world and our nation, that ability to really feel. That ability to feel empathy and compassion and then really using that as fuel to create solutions, to build bridges where there are divides, and understanding where there is misunderstanding. I don't know how that sounds.

Shabnam:   No that’s great! Thank you so much Anu. Do you have any final thoughts for our listeners?

Anu:            I think the only final thought that I have is that we’re really in this together, at a time where we’re facing so many challenges that seem insurmountable, I just want listeners to know that we as a human collective have been here before. So, this is where we need all of us to use all the skills we've gained, which I feel is dress rehearsal to now come out and really show up. I'm happy to be of support to anybody, you know, please check us out at and you can follow me @bemoreamerica and just be part of the conversation with us, I'm so pleased to be connected with this community.

Shabnam:   Thank you so much Anu. You’ve been listening to the Boren around the world podcast. If you haven't yet, go to Spotify to subscribe, rate and view this podcast. If you're interested in participating in the podcast, email [email protected] with “Boren Podcast” in your subject line. Join me soon for another episode. Thank you for listening!

In this episode, our host, Program Officer Shabnam Ahmed, will connect with Mr. Anu Gupta, the Founder & CEO of “Be More America.” Anu is a sought-after expert in breaking bias, adult learning and psychosocial well-being. We will discuss topics around racial and gender bias and how to better understand unconscious bias in order to be a bridge builder.