• Cicely Blain

Bored of singing happy birthday? Check your biases while washing your hands

In the 1860s, Austrian doctor Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis encouraged his colleagues to wash their hands before operating on patients or helping people give birth. He believed that using dirty hands to treat patients was causing unnecessary premature deaths. Like, these dudes were literally going from doing autopsies to delivering babies without so much as a drop of water, let alone soap, in between.

Semmelweis's colleagues thought he was ridiculous and shunned him from the hospital (bit of an excessive response to a workplace disagreement IMO). They went as far as having him committed to an asylum for his audacious claims (!) and he sadly died there a few years later. It’s not often that I feel sorry for an old white guy but this historical tidbit had me all emotional. Imagine being sure - with evidence! - that your work can save lives and having people disbelieve you so violently… oh wait, I do know what that’s like. Welcome to the life of a Black femme.

Anyway, after Semmelweis’s death, French scientist Louis Pasteur discovered germ theory. Pasteur confirmed that Semmelweis was right all along - washing our hands gets rid of deadly germs that carry disease. (Hugely paraphrasing science, don't @ me).

I’ve known about this story for a while but of course recent events have made it all the more relevant. Semmelweis would be so happy to know that we now get daily reminders to wash our hands, use our body weight in hand sanitizer (s/o to Latina inventor Lupe Hernandez - of course a woman improved on the discovery) and maybe, kind of, finally understand how germs work. Only took us a couple of hundred years. Or did it?

There is actually so much evidence that effective sanitation methods and viable theories about germs were developed way before the whole Semmelweis-and-his-mean-colleagues debacle. Al-Qānūn fī aṭ-Ṭibb (The Canon of Medicine) by now-Uzbekistani physician, Avicenna or Talmud Yerushalmi (The Jerusalem Talmud) or the Sushruta Samhita of ancient India all made reference to the contraction of disease by close physical contact or sharing of food or putting unwashed things in our mouths… as early as 200 BCE.

So, what does this have to do with bias? Well, a sh*t-ton of biases have basically gotten in the way of us having clean hands. Could unpacking our biases help stop the spread of COVID-19? No, probably not but it can help us become more open-minded, more informed and more aware of our own knowledge gaps. Not to mention unpacking bias could help us be less racist - anti-Asian racism has doubled in Vancouver (and similarly all over the world) in the past month.

Throughout history, we’ve ignored or even intentionally hidden and erased lessons that could serve to enhance our lives as human beings. Society - read Eurocentric society - has favoured certain narratives over others, even if they weren’t true or right or helpful.

Biases are not inherently bad - they are a tendency to lean towards or against something, to help us make decisions about what is safe, what makes sense, what is easy. But, because we are flawed (but trying!) human beings, we apply biased thinking that we have inherited or been socialized to believe, onto how we make decisions about other people. That’s when things get messy. Bias about what water is safe to swim in or what food feels good for your body is great! Helpful! Important! Then there are our biases about who would be good at a job, who to believe, which area of town is safe, whether to think or shoot first.

So many stereotypes and biases we hold are unoriginal - as in, we did not come up with them. If we didn’t create them, what responsibility or loyalty do we have to uphold them? None. We can choose to actively work on shedding our connection with harmful narratives about others and create new ideas about people - through meaningful, genuine, curious connection and community building.

There are apparently over 100 types of bias - this is a great infographic that breaks down 50 of them. The racism that we see towards people of Asian descent in this pandemic (obviously not exclusively but viscerally) is manifested by a combination of biases.

Stereotyping is obviously front and centre - our propensity to attribute generalized ideas to a group of people with very little information. Similarly, we see the Clove Hoof Effect taking place - our tendency to assume that one negative thing about a person/community/culture is representative of, and therefore overshadows their entirety. This is all tied together by the Availability Heuristic - the information that we can most quickly recall is the most accurate, or so our brains think. We have been inundated with headlines calling COVID-19 the 'China virus' - you couldn't go a day without reading coronavirus content that didn't mention that the virus (coincidentally, reportedly) started in a city in China. Western media did its thing of absolving any European or American complicity; intentionally scapegoating the 'other' and fueling the general public with racist rhetoric, all mixed in with a ton of fake news... the perfect recipe for developing bias.

But back to germs - I know you’re thinking Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (and they say racialized names are hard to pronounce…) was a white, European guy - who dared discriminate against him? Well, that’s where other types of bias come into play.

I can’t go back in time and confirm with Iggy’s colleagues what type of bias was playing out in their heads - I’m too busy organizing Stratagem Virtual. But I’m gonna take a few guesses.

Firstly - confirmation bias seems loud and clear. We tend to filter out information that doesn’t confirm or support what we already believe to be true. They could not fathom another reality existing because they had never been given the words to identify it; new ideas seemed scary and therefore wrong. This is compounded by conservatism bias - we favour prior evidence over new evidence. We can also assume that the groupthink effect was in full swing - have you ever been an Iggy? That one person standing up against their peers? It’s a hard job and it’s our brain’s natural inclination to want to agree with others, even if the final decision is wrong, because it’s less effort than resistance. Finally, we would likely see the Dunning-Kruger Effect - the tendency of people who know very little about something to view the issue simplistically and feel overly confident about their abilities but usually fail (kinda like how straight women only orgasm 65% of time and yet straight men consistently over-exaggerate their competency in the bedroom...).

Checking our biases can’t necessarily stop pandemics but it could open our minds to solutions we’ve dismissed or non-Western wisdom or decolonial ways of knowing.

So, here’s a list of statements for you to ponder over, next time you’re enthusiastically scrubbing your digits. Oh, you thought I was just going to tell a story about Iggy and not give you any homework? Use those precious twenty seconds to mull over some of these:

  1. I’ve heard my friends make jokes about race or racial stereotypes and didn’t say anything.

  2. When there is a conflict, I ask people to stay polite or civil.

  3. I have hugged or touched someone without their consent.

  4. I have asked someone “Where are you really from?”

  5. I’ve booked a venue for an event that didn’t have a ramp or elevator.

  6. I’ve helped a person with disabilities without asking first.

  7. I’ve interrupted a woman while she was speaking.

  8. I have avoided Chinese restaurants and shops since the outbreak of COVID-19.

  9. I have assumed someone’s pronouns without asking first.

  10. I have travelled to another place without knowing or researching whose traditional territory I was on.

  11. I’ve said something is ‘lame’ or ‘gay’ when I meant ‘bad’.

  12. I’ve asked someone about their relationships or sex life in a professional setting.

  13. I’ve looked twice at someone who I thought might be in the wrong bathroom.

  14. I have dismissed someone’s point because I perceived them to be less educated than me.

  15. I’ve told someone to ‘get over it’ in regards to discrimination or harassment they faced.

  16. Most of my news comes from Western news sources.

  17. I have refused a panhandler money because I was worried what they would buy with it.

  18. I have avoided people I perceived to be Muslim in an airport.

  19. I have taken the words of a white man as fact without questioning it.

  20. I have complimented someone on their weight loss.

  21. I have bought a girl a pink toy and/or a boy a blue toy.

  22. I’ve told someone with depression to ‘just try exercising’.

  23. I have questioned (internally or externally) a person of colour’s presence in a university.

  24. I have congratulated someone on losing weight.

  25. I often avoid certain areas of town.

  26. I move or hold my bag tighter when certain people get on the bus.

  27. I’ve asked someone to get me coffee in an office without checking if that was their role.

  28. I have been surprised to learn a person of colour is queer.

  29. I’ve thought or said that ‘they’ pronouns are grammatically incorrect.

  30. I have assumed that all immigrants and refugees wanted to come to Canada.

  31. If I witness a fight or incident, my first instinct is to call the police.

  32. I have seen young men of colour hanging out on the street and thought of calling the police or felt scared.

  33. I assume everyone can complete tasks at the same speed I can.

  34. I have organized an event without considering any form of translation (e.g. ASL).

  35. I have asked a woman if they are bringing their husband or a man if they are bringing their wife to a social.

  36. I have never really questioned the fact we celebrate/get time off for only Christian holidays at work.

  37. I usually breeze through passport control without thinking about it.

  38. I have given someone a job because I thought they would ‘fit in’ at the company.

  39. I have spoken loudly and slowly to an older person.

  40. I have dismissed the opinion of a child or teenager.

  41. If I see someone on their phone or using a fidget toy, I assume they are not paying attention and don’t care.

  42. I have complimented a father doing basic parenting tasks but not a mother.

  43. I have greeted an audience as ‘ladies and gentlemen’.

  44. I wouldn’t travel to certain countries because I perceive them as dangerous.

  45. I have touched a Black person’s hair without asking.

Need more support with your anti-racism work? Register now for Stratagem Virtual!

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