Stereotyping And Fear In Public Policy

02/13/2017 03:21 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2017

I can’t remain silent on what I see in recent steps involving immigration. I see fear and stereotyping. We need reason, clear thinking – and a heart!

I am not a bleeding heart who thinks our borders should be open to anyone. I believe in effective “vetting” processes. And the experts I know tell me we have the most hurdles for entry of any country. If we can improve our vetting processes, fine. Instead of looking at whether and how we can improve national security in this way, we are looking for exclusion, bans and “extreme” vetting. What is that?

Before the recent inauguration, I was in a discussion about the Syrian refugee crisis. While I saw the refugees as humans trying to escape violence and hunger, my friend saw a threat. “They want to kill us,” he said. I said that refusing to accept a reasonable number of these refugees was “fear-based, heartless, and un-Christian.” He asked how I’d feel if a Syrian refugee killed my daughter. Appalled at this display of fear-based thinking, I answered that I would feel the same as if a white male did. And I wouldn’t call for a ban on white males!

My work is in the area of diversity and inclusion in the workplace. I am not in the immigration field. But this debate on immigration policy is such a vivid display of what is so often unconscious and invisible—bias based on stereotypes.

Stereotypes are short-cuts taken by our “hidden brains,” says Shankar Vedantam. At the unconscious level, we draw back from a black man wearing a hoodie in the elevator; we cancel an Uber ride when we see the driver’s name is Yousef; we assume she isn’t an effective leader because she leads differently; we associate a Southern drawl with lack of intelligence; we judge women drivers and men who don’t ask for directions – or we judge all Muslims because a few radicals “want to kill us.”

All are examples of unconscious bias – which we can bring to consciousness and uproot! When we see a stereotype, we are missing that there is an individual. Our “hidden brain” can shut down our heart! Some of these stereotypes are fairly harmless. Others can keep someone from getting a fare or a promotion. Those combined with fear (“He is going to steal my purse,” or “They want to kill us”) can lead to much more serious harm. They should not be the basis of personal action – or public policy!

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