Picture a romantic couple. Holding each other in a tight embrace. She is leaning her head on his chest. His arms pulling her close.
It is a beautiful picture. One we have seen in many versions in movies, in social media and in our person lives.
Now, let’s flip the scene…
This time, it’s the man who is leaning his head against the woman’s chest.
This is my husband and me on our wedding day.
My husband is kind, he is strong, and also soft, he makes me laugh, sometimes cry, he’s smart and he’s understanding. In other words: I love him – very much.
My husband is also shorter than me. Not the kind of short that you can “hide” as “same height” if you wear no heels. He is so much shorter that people will notice. There is no way to pretend it away. I am 1,80m. He is 1,60m.
Of course, we all know that a persons height says nothing about their personality, their qualification, or whether they make a good partner. I have friends who are taller than me, and shorter than me… it really doesn’t matter…
And yet… having a boyfriend who is so much shorter than me was something I struggled with A LOT. Even though I knew it made no sense – I was so used to the classic picture of what a couple is supposed to look like – I couldn’t shake the discomfort of not matching this norm. While in private I forgot about his height, in public, I felt like a failure. People were gonna think that I wasn’t able to get a proper man. That I had “sold” myself below value. That I deserved better.
This is what subconscious bias is. Even though I rationally understood how non-sensical it is to judge someone by their body height – I still could sense, with every fiber of my body, that dating a much shorter guy was wrong.
Of course, I would never discriminate against short people. Not give someone a job because they’re short. Not promote someone because they’re short. Discount someone’s opinion because they’re short. I would never do that. Or would I?
The thing with subconscious bias is that it is subconscious. And even when reality hits you over the head and brings one of your biases to your consciousness, that doesn’t mean that the issue is resolved… It took me 2 years – two years!!! – to overcome my bias towards a person I love dearly.
What happens when our bias is directed at someone we’re not in love with?
What’s missing in the discussion around subconscious bias is the fact that awareness is not enough. Knowing your biases is not enough, when your feelings, your intuition are still influenced by it. It is hard work to overcome subconscious bias. To realize that us feeling uneasy about someone is the result of bias. To re-wire the stories in our heads that tell us “that black guy looks dangerous”, “that fat guy must be lazy”, “that women is so emotional”.
Today, the story I tell myself about my relationship is a different one. Today, I am a hero fighting for the rights of short people. Our marriage is a symbol for a more diverse world. And we giggle at the perplexed looks we get, when people see us together for the first time. I crafted this story during those 2 years of struggle. Every day, my fear of being judged would crop back up. Every day, I would decide to ignore that fear and remember that I’m a hero… fighting for more diversity. Over time, the moments of fear became more rare… until they were gone.
I’m sure I have many more biases to work on. The journey ahead is long and uncomfortable.
But if I’m not ready to take that honest look inside and actively shift those internalized stories – every day, again and again – diversity and inclusion will remain but a distant dream.