Heads Up in the New Year!

Heads Up in the New Year!

Most New Year’s resolutions have to do with food and exercise, but healthier living also has to do with how we think. As a result, my first blog of the year is a brief little exercise about conscious and unconscious bias in hopes of inspiring a new way of reflecting on how we think about the world around us.

Step 1: Look at this picture and ask yourself: “What are stereotypes you can come up with of women dressed like she is?”

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Step 2: Now look at the next picture and answer the same question.

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Try to capture the very first thoughts that come into your mind. This will allow you to really take stock of how we all have tapes that play in our minds and how they can affect the way we see things with which we may not be familiar.

After 9/11 the following notions were more and more likely:

not my friend
unable to work
can’t drive

And yet she is none of these. She is:

a soccer mom
a business woman
a former Ms. Softball U.S.A.
a lover of country and Arabic music
She is a Muslim
She is American

This is Lobna Mohamed Abdel Rehim Ismail – shortened in the U.S.A. to four letters – Luby. She is the founder and President of Connecting Cultures, located in Washington D.C., a consulting firm that specializes in facilitating people’s understanding of culture and religion. She was the go to person in the days following 9/11.

The above exercise is inspired by her trainings during those confusing days when government agencies were scrambling to make sense of the backlash and random violence that was sweeping the nation against Arabs, Muslims or people who looked Muslim. Men with beards, women who covered their hair or Sikhs who were victims of horrible crimes and that unfortunately still continue today.

Luby’s rooms went from the ideal 20 people to the necessary 200 with standing room only. One professor admitted, “After you put that (head scarf) on I could no longer hear you. I could no longer listen to you. I was so disturbed by becoming aware of my own bias that I had to leave the room.” For him it awakened something inside. It revealed that as a father of three girls with progressive attitudes advocating women’s rights, he was still so affected by this woman’s choice to cover her head.

So what is it about the experience of so many people in non-Muslim-majority countries that we are more interested by what is on a woman’s head than what is in her head?

It is hard to know when we have unconscious biases operating since they are, well, unconscious. Exercises like these and digging deeper to challenge our stereotypes is a great first step in creating a healthier way of approaching the New Year and opening up our minds to all possibilities.

So for me, I will continue to ask myself – what are my unconscious biases that play a role in how I see the world? What is the tape that plays in my mind? Maybe in 2014 we can add mindfulness to the definition of good health; mindfulness of ourselves, mindfulness of those around us and mindfulness that there is so much that is invisible to us.

With that I will leave you with one final picture:

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Thank you Luby for sharing your experiences. Happy New Year everyone.