I held my phone up to the scanner to get my boarding pass, but nothing happened. I turned it in a different direction, but the scanner still failed to pick up the QR code. I looked up for help. What was I doing wrong? Finally, a Muslim woman with the airline, wearing a hijab, a cloth covering her hair but leaving her face visible, came to help me.
Of course, when I printed out the baggage sticker, I struggled to place it properly around my luggage handle. I started to put it the wrong way until I realized I was making a mistake. She helped me again.
I’ve been thinking about the unconscious biases we all have — the tendency, inclination, or prejudice toward or against someone. Some biases are positive and helpful—like choosing to eat foods that are considered healthy or preferring dogs over cats. But biases are often based on stereotypes, rather than knowledge of an individual or circumstance such as the hiring manager who prefers job applicants who come from the same city.
The human brain processes millions of bits of information every second, but our minds, however, can only handle 14 to 60 bits of that. In order for us to function, the brain creates mental shortcuts by seeking out patterns to group and categorize the information. Through this process, we develop preferences. Whether positive or negative, such shortcuts can result in prejudgments that lead to rash or discriminatory decisions.
Doing a re-take
I was thinking about this when I left the counter and headed toward airport security to be checked in for my flight. I thought about the woman. I like to think I’m open minded and tolerant to people of different ages, ethnicities, races, religions, sex or gender, and sexual orientation. I like to believe that I’m in favor of equality for all.
However, in all honesty, I suspect she wouldn’t have been the first person I would have sought out for help. I’m pretty sure I would have chosen the older African American lady two rows down who looked like a friendly grandmother.
Despite my initial thoughts, the muslim woman was actually more helpful than the “grandmother” who checked my bag and was brusque when I was slow to respond to a question. She seemed annoyed to have me in her line. Her reaction could have been caused by a million different things. She could have been tired or ready to take a break. Heck, I could have misinterpreted her response. No matter what though, the muslim woman went out of her way to help me.
People are people
The point of my story is that we all have biases and I know from my own personal experience that we would all be better off if we checked them at the door, were more self aware about our experiences, and treated people as individuals then some descriptor that may or may not be all that accurate.
Life is more complicated than one little interaction in an airport, but checking our biases would certainly go a long way in treating everyone in a fair manner.
And how did I handle my situation? When I walked past the woman, I thanked her and told her how helpful she had been to me. She had been a big help. In more ways than one.