Eliminating Implicit Bias among Lawyers, Part 2
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
By Rebecca Howlett and Cynthia Sharp
“I think unconscious bias is one of the hardest things to get at.”—Ruth Bader Ginsburg
As we continue exploring the role of mindfulness in reducing and ultimately eradicating implicit bias, our focus shifts to cultural competence.1 While it is unlikely that any of us will achieve full competency, making the commitment to try is worth it—especially for attorneys committed to building a client-centric practice. After all, by understanding another’s cultural background, we can achieve a deeper level of communication and trust than would otherwise be possible. Further, as respected members of the community, lawyers are in a unique position to influence positive societal change through our actions and words.
Cultural Competence Is Key
Cultural competency or cultural awareness encompasses the ability to be conscious of one’s own culturally shaped values, beliefs, perceptions, and biases, as well as the skills to effectively communicate and interact with people of diverse backgrounds and cultures. By developing a conscious awareness of our personal worldview and actively reflecting on how we perceive and react to cultural differences, we can help bolster and strengthen our cross-cultural communication skills.
Although there are nuances and unique aspects to glean for all diverse cultures, actively developing conscious communication in one area will ultimately support your cultural awareness skills more broadly. In this column, we have opted for an in-depth discussion of developing cultural competency with Native American community members. Here, Becky will delve into her experience as a non-Native person working for Tribal clients, as well as highlight some specific cultural considerations and their real-world impacts.
As a practicing attorney, Becky developed her professional experience and expertise working in federal Indian law and tribal law on behalf of American Indian tribal governments and Indigenous peoples. These experiences greatly expanded her knowledge and understanding of Native American cultures and perspectives. Often, she found herself as the only non-Native person at the table, a humbling and eye-opening experience that instilled the importance of developing cross-cultural awareness and communication skills.
Becky began her legal career in Washington, D.C., at the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), a Native nonprofit dedicated to protecting tribal sovereignty and the rights of Indian individuals. For example, NCAI has actively advocated for decades to end the use of Native mascots, particularly the Washington football team’s mascot, the R*dskins. (This word is considered a racial slur and derives from a time when Native Americans were historically murdered for state-sanctioned bounties.)
Recently, several professional sports teams have committed to ending their long-held practice of using Native mascots, including the Washington football team and the Cleveland baseball team. Although others still tote Native mascots—such as the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Braves—these organizations are taking some steps to curb fans’ usage of stereotypical images of Native American culture, such as bans on wearing headdresses.
The Trouble with Symbols and Stereotypes
Why does this matter? Because these mascots do not exist in a vacuum, Native mascotry causes real-world harm. Numerous studies have confirmed what Indian activists have long told us—that Native mascots produce harmful effects on mental health and self-image, particularly for Indigenous children. Given the known linkage behind Native mascots and an increased risk of suicide, ending Native mascotry should be of the utmost importance, especially as many Tribal communities battle epidemic rates of suicide among Native youth. What is considered “fun and games” for some can be literal “life or death” for these communities.
Native mascots not only hurt Indigenous peoples, but also cause larger societal harm by reinforcing stereotypes and prejudices held by non-Indians. For example, Native women face the highest rates of domestic, dating, and sexual violence compared to any other ethnic group, and this violent is often perpetrated by non-Indians who don’t face prosecution. The situation is so dire that Secretary Deb Haaland—the first-ever Native American cabinet member—formed a new “Missing and Murdered Unit” within the Bureau of Indian Affairs. We would be doing a great disservice to think there is no connection between dehumanizing images of Native Americans and these epidemic rates of violence in Indian country.
As Americans, we are indoctrinated with stereotypical Native imagery in media and marketing. It is commonplace to see women dressed as a sexy Pocahontas for Halloween and for school children to “dress up” as pilgrims and Indians in celebration of Thanksgiving or for “cowboys and Indians” themed birthday parties. These disparaging images of Natives Americans are seemingly so interwoven into the fabric of Americana that casual racism against Natives is broadly accepted and not taken seriously. Ask yourself, why is there public outcry when we see someone in blackface, but not redface?
Internal Conflict and Shifting Attitudes
After five years of developing relationships with Indigenous peoples from across the United States, Becky’s return to her hometown took on a whole new light as the home of the Kansas City Chiefs—a team name linked to the Boy Scouts “playing Indian.” She grew up with nostalgic memories of watching and rooting for the Chiefs, yet she now had awareness of the real-world, harmful effects of Native mascots. Although it was uncomfortable to confront and reconcile her past involvement with these harmful practices, it was a necessary step in her growth as a non-Native ally.
In August 2020, the Chiefs banned Native imagery in the stadium, yet the organization still bears the official team name and many long-standing practices involving stereotypical Native imagery, such as the Tomahawk Chop. These “traditions” have become an intrinsic part of game day at Arrowhead Stadium, and many consider calls to end these practices as political correctness run amok. Yet, these social movements to end Native mascots are not new. (For example, NCAI’s campaign to end Native mascots began in 1968.) What has changed is that the dominant culture is finally starting to accept what Native Americans have been saying for decades.
Our society has come a long way, but there is still much work to be done. It is critical that we humble ourselves and truly listen to what others of diverse backgrounds are telling us about their lived experiences. We must actively hold space for divergent viewpoints even (and especially!) if they do not mirror our own. By seeking out meaningful interactions with people of different backgrounds and cultures—and actively deconstructing our explicit and implicit biases—we can strengthen our ability to be effective allies and ultimately help make the world a more inclusive place for all.
Curbing Implicit Bias Through Mindfulness
Mindfulness is a proven method to reduce implicit bias and the prejudicial behaviors that it causes. Studies show that practicing mindfulness meditation—for as little as 10 minutes—can reduce the automatic judgments we make about people, including decreased bias toward race and age. We invite you to experience in real time how your brain utilizes these intrinsic schemas and will automatically start categorizing to help it make sense of your present experience.
For the following exercise, simply allow yourself to objectively observe any images and associations that automatically arise. Resist the urge to judge or try to change what comes up. No need to overthink it; simply be a witness. After the meditation, take a few minutes and write down what you observed or experienced—capture the details of what you visualized, as well as any thoughts, feelings, or emotions that arose. Join us now for a brief mindfulness meditation to see your own implicit bias in action!
If you completed the exercise, you likely found that your brain imputed a lot of details. This shows how schemas work in practice—although your brain was not being nefarious, you may have noticed that the automatic assumptions it made were based on stereotypes.
Remember, we all carry implicit biases (they are essential to our cognitive functioning!), but it is our ethical and professional obligation as attorneys to identify these unconscious biases and actively work to curb their negative effects.
We encourage our readers to set an intention to approach the rest of your day with a mindful attitude—be present in the here and now, tune into your breathing, and fully focus on the task at hand. If you would like more information on how to integrate mindfulness practices into your everyday life, e-mail us directly or subscribe to our mailing list at legalburnout.com for a copy of our Mindfulness Resources Guide.
Our objective in writing this two-part series was to help legal professionals learn more about the harmful effects of implicit bias and to reinforce how mindfulness can help shift baked-in unconscious attitudes. We urge all readers to consider what actions they can take to interrupt bias both in personal and professional arenas.
In honor of Well-Being in Law Week (May 3 to May 7) and Mental Health Awareness Month (observed during the month of May), next month’s column will be geared toward the role of mindfulness in breaking mental health stigma.
1. For those who haven’t had a chance to read Part 1 of this series, it may provide useful background for the concepts examined here. In Part 1, we touched on the science of implicit bias, described its impact in the legal setting, examined ethical considerations, and concluded with suggested steps that each lawyer can take to become aware of and interrupt unconscious bias.
Rebecca Howlett, Esq., and Cynthia Sharp, Esq., are co-founders of The Legal Burnout Solution, a community dedicated to the well-being of lawyers.
© 2021. Originally published in GP Solo eReport, April 2021 Issue (Vol. 10, No. 9) by the American Bar Association. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association or the copyright holder.