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NEWS | Sept. 6, 2012

Eliminating our biases... embracing our diversity

By Chap. (Capt.) Steven I. Rein 633rd Air Base Wing Chapel

Several weeks ago, a colleague of mine told me about leading a program at the local community center. Prior to the program's start, she went to the lobby to wait for a pizza delivery. For roughly 15 minutes, she was looking for a short male of Hispanic descent, wearing loose jeans. Finally, a tall, fair-skinned gentleman waiting next to her spoke up.

"Do you know anything about a pizza delivery?" said the man. "I'm waiting for someone to pick up a few pies."

Reflecting back, my friend felt not only embarrassed, but ashamed at being blinded by her racial bias. Unfortunately, my friend is not alone. How often are we blinded by our own biases towards other individuals or groups?

Frequently, we are not even aware of the prejudices that we have internalized. Italian scientist Alessio Avenanti of the University of Bologna has recently shown that racial bias can, in fact, negate the ability to feel pain of someone from a different ethnic group.

Avenanti recruited white and black Italian volunteers to watch videos of a stranger's hand being pierced with a needle. While measuring the neurons of the observers' hands in roughly the same place, he found that the recruits only responded empathetically when they saw hands that were of the same skin tone as their own. If the hands belonged to a different ethnic group, they were unmoved by the pain they saw. These reactions point towards an implicit prejudice unconsciously coloring our world.

While the research of Avenanti does indeed indicate that we possess multiple biases, he also concludes this is not our default state. Avenanti repeated his experiment with brightly colored violet hands, which clearly do not belong to any known ethnic group.

Despite the hands' strange hues, when they were poked with needles, the recruits all showed strong empathetic responses, reacting as they did to hands of their own skin tone. There is indeed hope. The learning process, however, is not easy.

One step that we can all take is engaging in real dialogue with individuals of different faiths and cultural backgrounds. The diversity of our Air Force coupled with the ability to learn from each other is an important first step towards eliminating our biases and embracing our diversity.

The Air Force Policy Directive 36-70 on Diversity states that "diversity is a military provides an aggregation of strengths, perspectives, and capabilities that transcends individual contributions...and ensures our long-term viability to support our mission."

Are we each doing our part to ensure this statement rings true? What biases exist in our Air Force today? As we approach the one year anniversary of the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell," how have you personally created a climate of mutual respect in your unit?

When many of our ancestors came to these shores they came "yearning to breathe free." Emma Lazarus' poem, engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty, does not bestow this on, "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses" who happen to be of one particular ethnicity, religion, race or sexual orientation.

We cannot erase years of evolution during which we have learned to fear the unfamiliar, to flee from or fight any threat. Fortunately, however, our minds are flexible enough to be altered by experience.

We must become aware of our unconscious forms of prejudice, and confront that which has been implicit. Creating positive memories with individuals and groups with perceived differences will begin to restore our collectively dimmed vision. We must once again learn to evaluate people based on who they are, not who we think they are.

By refusing to see the humanity in the eyes of another human being, we embody the very intolerance that has afflicted us for millennia. Embracing diversity begins today, our neighbors are waiting.