The bad news is that everyone has implicit biases — beliefs that are so ingrained that we don’t even know they’re there. And those implicit biases often find a way out of our mouths or through our behaviors as microaggressions, which are usually meant as compliments, “but contain hidden insults,” according to the WSBA Diversity Dictionary.
Out in the real world, this might take the form of someone telling Joy Williams that her hair is beautiful and then asking to touch it. For the person asking, specifically a white person, this might feel like a compliment; for Williams, a black woman, it translates to “you are not like me — you are other.”
Williams, the diversity and public service programs manager for the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA), explained this to about 600 members of the Washington Attorney General’s Office (AGO) who had gathered for the 2018 Professional Staff Conference in April. Her presentation that day, “Moving Forward with Intention,” was an introduction to the 19 upcoming half-day CLEs on microaggression and implicit bias that she is holding this year with smaller groups of AGO staff across the state.
And yes, Williams assured the crowd back in April, people do ask to touch her hair. But she’s dealt with worse, like when police held three of her sons on the ground, claiming they matched the descriptions of adults accused in a robbery — her sons were in middle school then. Williams has had epithets slung at her because she is black. She has lost friends and been ostracized from her church because she came out as gay. She’s also dealt with microaggressions and disrespect at work. But what she’s hoping to accomplish through the CLEs is to “normalize discussions around microaggressions and implicit bias.”
To the AGO staff who will attend those CLEs, she asks that they come prepared for an environment where there’s “no shame, no guilt, no judgment.” She asks them to be prepared to accept themselves because, again, we all have implicit biases. The work to get to that point isn’t easy and it’s often uncomfortable. But here’s the good news: By having courage and doing the work, as uncomfortable as it can be, “we can get one step closer toward creating the inclusive environment that, frankly, we all want,” Williams said.
This year marks the fifth anniversary of the WSBA Diversity & Inclusion Plan. And for the AGO, Williams’ training on microaggression and implicit bias is part of a continuum toward a more diverse and inclusive workplace and culture.
“One of the things that I think is important is that our office has been really committed to having a workplace that is respectful and inclusive and seeing real value around diversity and inclusion,” Deputy Attorney General Erika Uhl said in a phone interview after the conference. “I think [Washington Attorney General] Bob Ferguson would be the first person to say that he sees the value of having diverse perspectives around the table.”
The AG’s office has adopted its own diversity policy and continues to evolve internal staff training on implicit bias. Williams’ CLEs, which are in-person only, are another piece of that evolution.
“I think it would be fair to say that through [Williams], the Bar has become a resource on issues of diversity and inclusion,” Uhl said. “And I see [Williams] as an expert on these types of issues, so I was definitely thrilled when she had a training on microaggressions available and was willing to do it.”
The seminars include hands-on training that highlights how to recognize implicit bias and microaggressions in others, as well as yourself; how to interrupt microaggressive behavior and biased language from other people; and how to react when someone else interrupts your microaggressive behavior.
As members of the legal profession going out into the community, Williams told the audience at the AGO conference, it’s imperative to be held to a high level of integrity and truly demonstrate the value of diversity, “which means, whatever we’re saying, then we must align with not just what we say, but what we do. So we talk about diversity from the inside out.”
To learn more about these trainings and additional partnerships between WSBA and legal professional organizations, check out the full article in the July/August issue of NWLawyer.