Defining the Other: The Basis for Bias


Early in my career I was summoned to the office of the chief executive for the organization I then served. I had been in his office many times. Though I was a young administrator, he included me in many meetings and often sought my advice. I liked being close to the big fish in that small pond. Looking back, I offered some energy and enthusiasm for my role and already had formed opinions about the future of the entire organization and how things should be accomplished. Perhaps I had a few good ideas. I suppose I was a typically ambitious and yet immature leader, with influence that far exceeded my wisdom at the time.

This meeting, however, was different. It was very brief and to the point. He confronted me with a situation involving an international student on campus with whom I had interacted. At that time, I had responsibility for international students and in the course of enforcing the “rules” I deeply offended the student to the point that he approached the senior executive. Asked if I had interacted with the student in the manner alleged, I immediately confessed. He then looked squarely at me and said, “If you do that again, I will fire you.” It was one of the most important experiences of my professional career.

After apologizing to the student and rectifying the situation to the best of my ability, I spent considerable time trying to define the problem. Was I not clear in my communication? Were the policies and procedures to blame? Was I the victim of someone who simply did not want to comply with the regulations? In time the answer became clear to me – I was the problem.

I was raised during a time period and in a cultural context in which perspectives on human difference and diversity were at best confused. At its worst, it was sheer bias and prejudice. Born in 1960, my worldview was shaped by a setting in which society was in transition from heavy structural racism and personal bias to a form of acceptance that was largely rhetorical. As long as I said the right things and held various public positions, any private bias I may have developed was OK. Or so I thought.

The journey through those years in the 1980s was most rewarding, for I learned so much about how my view of the world needed to change. My thoughts about other nations and peoples, given my lack of international experience at the time, were very colonial in nature. I had been taught the work of my government and the work of my church was to bring my familiar worldview to people disadvantaged by their birthplace, race and culture. I eventually realized there is indeed much we can offer, but we also have so much to learn.

The journey did not end there. Step by step I moved from the systemic to the personal. The harsh reality was my prejudice and bias were certainly amplified by my early surroundings but were quite firmly rooted in personal arrogance. Others had it wrong. I needed to make them comply…for their own good. My head, my heart and my stomach still ache when I think about that journey of self-discovery. It’s hard to become aware of your own shadow. It’s even harder to dispel it by making yourself subject to the light.

Though I’m still a learner, the past 30 years have taught me so much. Here is a list of my observations:

First, I’ve learned that people order the world in different ways. We are shaped by the experiences we have amassed in the settings that have defined our personal and group identity. It’s not so much a matter of what we value. Often we value many of the same things. It has more to do with how we get things done – things like individual vs. group initiative, interpersonal and group dynamics, the positive or negative role institutions have played in accomplishing things for good or for ill.

Second, cultural norms are mysterious. Often taking the form of symbols, such conventions communicate much more than respect for ritual. Rather they articulate values, tell the story of a people, facilitate interaction and reinforce a shared sense of purpose. The challenge is that without spending time to learn about the cultural norms of others, we risk using our lenses of interpretation inappropriately. This invariably leads to misunderstanding as words and phrases are taken too literally and practices are held in suspicion for their unfamiliarity. It’s easy to draw errant conclusions out of ignorance.

Third, the interpretation of rules, regulations, policies and procedures means different things to different people. Many of us are textualists or literalists when it comes to the articulation of what is expected or required. Others look for the rationale behind the boundary conditions we create with a greater tolerance for flexibility. This surfaces in our understanding of the “letter of the law” vs. the “spirit of the law.” Misaligned understandings are so common that rules seem to grow with every exception we uncover.

Fourth, moral and ethical interpretations are deeply affected by cultural context. The rigidities we bring through our patterns frequently diverge from the thoughts and ideas of others. The dilemmas of life only get more complex and the rights of one person or group are placed against those of another. History has taught us that notions of morality and ethics are sometimes subject to ideology. In certain cases moral contortions and ethical compromise are the result.

Fifth, successful management of conflict and the negotiation of solutions can rest entirely on interpretive contexts, nuances of language and historic traditions. Even reasonable people can disagree. Yet our ability to listen well, understand deeply and interpret carefully requires a sensitivity that is less juridical and more relational.

In reading these observations it would be easy to conclude my thoughts pertain to international settings. The reality is these same considerations exist within the United States and extend through each state, municipality and organization. America is experiencing rapid change and the stresses of that process are pressing the limits of our cultural and linguistic diversity. Our collective future relies on our individual capacity to hear others speak and express their needs and interests; to see clearly how they order the world; and to understand the relational dynamics that can build trust and reduce barriers. It’s easy to define others, but the rigidity of our thinking can be the basis for bias.

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8 responses to “Defining the Other: The Basis for Bias”

  1. Ruedi Giezendanner says:

    As husband of a central alumna, I’ve been peeking into this blog occasionally and really enjoying it. The most recent blog post brought a paper to mind which (despite its poor editing) makes worthwhile reading and seems to fit the topic very well: “We Compromise the Gospel When We Settle For Truth: How Right Interpretations Lead to Wrong Contextualization,” by Jackson Wu. We have much to learn about and from an other-cultural perspective.

  2. Deanna Ver Steeg says:

    First, obvious thought was how this supports the importance of early exposure to other cultures through an international experience.

    Second thought was related to a NYT article called “The Land of the Binge.”

    The article advances a hypothesis that while the internet, in theory has “broadened our universes, speeding us to distant galaxies, fresh discoveries and new information,” has, “in reality, just as often had a narrowing effect, enabling us to dwell longer on, and burrow deeper into, one way of being, one mode of thinking.”

    A friend referenced this article on Facebook and indicated that for Lent, she was “giving up” reading articles and watching media supporting only her party’s view of U.S. politics and committing to reading articles and watching media supporting the other side in order to balance and better inform her opinion.

  3. Luanne Tilstra says:

    Like many Central alumnae (and alumni), I grew up in an environment in which diversity was represented by whether you were American Reformed, Christian Reformed, Lutheran, or Baptist. Travel and study abroad began to open my eyes, as did living in Louisiana for six years.

    Now I’m back in the midwest in an extremely homogeneous environment. I’m a professor at an undergraduate school of science, engineering, and mathematics. I’m a member of one majority (white) and two minorities (scientist among engineers and woman among men). I’ve been appointed to be the Director of our Center for Diversity; my charge is to promote diversity and inclusivity on this campus. What I have learned is that my real task is to open the eyes of our faculty, staff, and students to the importance of cultural context to how we perceive and how we are perceived. I have concluded that the essential first step is for individuals to acknowledge their own unique culture before they can acknowledge that others might have a different culture. This–of course–requires self-reflection. Engineers, mathematicians, and scientists are not comfortable with self-reflection. As I struggle with ways to help this community to become open to the message, I am encouraged by Mark’s words.

  4. Lee Collins says:

    Thank you, Mark for this discussion. I read Jackson Wu’s article, too, and there are lots of things to think about there.
    Our Western Seminary/Second Reformed Church discussion on World Religions could use the ideas for reflection. I intend to pass some of them along to our class.

  5. Sara Miskimins says:

    Love this commentary and love that it is coming from the president of the college. As the mom of a Central alum- a very liberal religious and political alum who didn’t always fit the Central mold, at that!- it’s nice to see the head of the school seeing the value in differences. And working on his biases, as should we all. They are ingrained in us and it’s only by opening ourselves to others near and far that we truly understand. Or at least have a chance of getting along!

  6. George I Brown Jr says:

    I grew up in the 1950’s -1960’s in a central Iowa community just 30 miles from Pella. During my primary and secondary school years I interacted with just one black family, one hispanic family and one jewish family, so I did not experience much diversity growing up. At Central College, we had some specific times set aside for College-wide study… Gulliver’s Travels, The Age of Enlightenment and one that dealt with African American experience. During that last study event I believe that Central College had to bring more African American young people to provide a wider range of experience and to provide representatives to each of the study groups that we broke into for discussion each day. It was eye-opening for me to realize that although I grew up as poor as some black children in Marshaltown, IA I was not subjected to the same indignities they were. Since they were on that terrible thing called Welfare, when their mother purchased a record player for the children they had to hide it when the social worker visited. The social worker searched the house to see how they were spending the Welfare money. When my father purchased us a record player (most probably with money that should have been used to pay some other bill) we did not have to hide that electric tool that brought such enjoyment to us.
    When I went to Yucatan in 1970, I experienced another eye-opening. I studied in a relative wealthy neighborhood (Colonia Buena Vista), just 10 blocks from one of the poorest neighborhood (Colonia Mexico Oriente). Yucatecans approached me and asked who was running the USA..Kissenger or Nixon? People who did not have televisions would talk to me about walking to a place where there was a TV to watch our astronauts walk on the moon. I worked with orphans at the Salvation Army Orphanage, taught English at the Presbyterian Church downtown Merida and at the community center with one of the Maryknol nuns.
    All these experiences changed forever how I looked at the world’s people. I had been ignorant and now I began my education about how culture influenced everyone, including me.

  7. Stan Durey says:

    I look forward to these essays and thank you once again. While reflecting on your words, I thought of three markings in my life that informed my views on race and on my fellow inhabitants on this little blue ball.

    My parents grew up in Fayette County,Iowa and had as schoolmates a number of Black children, descendants of families that had settled and farmed there following the Civil War. I first learned of this when in third or fourth grade I heard the “N” word on the playground and brought it home to try out. The experiment ended with Ivory soap in my mouth and instuctions from my mother that use of such a word in her house was forbidden. Lesson one learned.

    My second semester on campus, I moved with my Danish room mate, Soren Woolf, to Bovenkamp House on what was then the north side of campus. For the next year and a half, we lived a melting pot existence. We were low income farm kids (yours truly), urbanites, suburbanites, working class, wealthy, Chinese, Black, White, jocks, intellectuals, drinkers, teetotalers, smokers and non, and we somehow made it work.
    I don’t know if Central intended us to be a social experiment, but it opened me to worlds and personalities and ways of thought that I never imagined in my small town Iowa upbringing. And it blessed me with life-long friendships.

    Later, but I cannot recall how many years, I saw an interview with Father Theodore Hesburgh, then President and now President Emeritus of The University of Notre Dame. He was, and is, a highly visible proponent of civil rights, having been appointed to the Civil Rights Commission at the time of its creation in 1957, later serving as chairman at about the same time as my years at Central. In the interview, Father Hesburgh related how his attitudes on race were not a natural outgrowth of his upbringing. (And here I wish I could quote his actual words rather than paraphrase.) He described waking each morning to the reminder that he is a flawed and prejudiced human being, and his mission, his struggle, is to use each day to live in a way, to act and speak in ways, determined to heal those flaws and depart from those prejudices.

    This is a man who walked arm in arm with Dr. King in his struggle for civil rights, who during his 35 years as President brought Notre Dame into world wide prominence as an academic institution, a man who has received more honorary degrees than any living American. I had to ask the question of myself. “How about you, Stan? How do you prepare to face the world each day?”

    For me, his words were a lesson in humility, a lesson on how to live. They have lived in me since I first heard them and serve as a constant reminder that we have a duty to self-reflection, to self discovery, and to use those things we learn in service to our fellows on this planet.

    Thank you, Mark, for sharing your own journey and for creating a space in time for me to reflect on mine – another gift to me from Central.

  8. Don Huffman says:

    This is indeed an accurate analysis of how defining the other operates at every level of organization. Of course it is a lesson on how to live
    which we all must learn to function in our related groups as well as in others less related to us.
    The unfortunate fact is that some people do have access to more knowledge of various topics than others, and it would be counter- productive to assume that all people’s positions are equivalent in value
    in the study and solutions to the various problems under consideration.
    Of course humility is indispensible along with consideration of the position and views others may have.