Gillespie: Unconscious Bias in Action: Taped Quote on Campus Poster Sends Two Messages

By Barbara Gillespie


Students walking near the Marriott Library have seen the large microaggression campaign posters. “You don’t look like a lesbian,” says one. Another, “Where are you really from?” The posters are intended to educate people about subtle comments that reflect unconscious bias. Early in September, though, one of the posters had an additional message.

Walking past the library between classes, I noticed that the poster nearest the east entrance had a quote taped to both sides: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” Eleanor Roosevelt.

I really like Eleanor’s quote. I agree with her that humans have the power to withstand the garbage thrown at us. I am happy that we have this poster campaign. Unconscious bias against people of a different race, skin tone, body shape, sexual orientation, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, religion, etc. is real.

I admire Eleanor for changing the discussion to a message of self-worth. Strong self-confidence is a powerful defense against the external insults, slights and discrimination that can and will come. If self-confidence is weakened, the weight of external forces may start to take hold.

Yet, looking at the taped quote, I felt conflicted. Something about the quote didn’t feel quite right for the situation.

The posters have captions such as, “Microaggressions are subtle but reflect unconscious bias. Understand what you’re saying.” While feelings of inferiority might be caused by microaggressions, the posters don’t explicitly say anything about it. Microaggressions may make a person feel lonely and isolated, unwanted and judged. If nothing else, hurt. Even if someone is hurt by a microaggression about, for example, race, that doesn’t mean that they feel like their race is actually inferior. They just don’t like being bothered and treated by different standards.

Further more, having unconscious bias doesn’t necessarily mean you think something/someone is inferior, it just means that you have a preconceived idea about who they may be. A person saying “you don’t look like a lesbian” might simply have the preconceived notion that all lesbians have short hair and don’t wear makeup. This comment could still unintentionally invalidate a person, implying that they have to change themselves to show who they are. 

So why is the poster-taper bringing up inferiority? Where is this association coming from? Do they believe that marginalized groups must feel inferior? Do they believe a person can only feel hurt if they believe they are inferior? That feeling hurt is caused by inferiority? That any difference between people means a value difference?

At superficial glance, the taped sign could be read as saying that self-confidence is the answer, that marginalized groups need to work on their internal strength. In essence, it says that feeling hurt is a personal problem. The person didn’t choose a quote like Madame Curie’s “life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves.” They didn’t even go with a “suck it up, buttercup.” Either of those would have gotten the solution-comes-from-within (or, more callously, “it’s your own fault”) point across.

No. The reason I can’t agree with the quote being used in this context is because there is an implicit, underlying message. It shuts down the conversation by saying that it is solely on the recipient of a microaggression to change their attitude, not for people to be conscious of the effect of their words. It was an unconscious bias, you might say. A microaggression. The message is not just “it’s your own fault.” The message is also “and you must be inferior.”  

The poster-taper provided a perfect case study in unconscious bias. The person looked at the posters and thought of Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote about inferiority. Unconscious bias in action. Poster-Taper, this campaign is for you. It’s for all of us, including me. We all have unconscious bias towards certain things or people. Before we ignore the campaign, let’s actually stop and understand what we’re saying.

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