Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

The bus was part of a mobile tour called “Check Your Blind Spots,” a project that aims to make people aware of their unconscious biases.

September 17, 2019

Bus in Arts Quad Reminds Students to Check Their Blindspots, Unconscious Biases

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A black bus with phrases like “Race,” “Diversity” and “Equity” emblazoned on it was parked in the Arts Quad on Monday, offering members of the Cornell community an opportunity to immersively experience the subtleties of discrimination.

The bus was part of a mobile tour called “Check Your Blind Spots,” a project that aims to make people aware of their unconscious biases when interacting with others of different ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations and religions.

Sylvana Storey, a business psychologist according to her Huffington Post profile, defines unconscious bias as “a bias that happens automatically, is outside of our control and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.”

Positioned outside the bus was a wall of telephones where people could listen to a phone call of a landlord forcing a woman to pay three months of her lease upfront because she is covered in tattoos and piercings, whereas a man mentioned in the call only had to pay for one month upfront — just one example of the manifestation of unconscious biases.

Inside the bus, there were a number of other virtual reality simulations and interactive surveys to further highlight these unconscious biases. In one such simulation, a sales clerk in a clothing store is portrayed as believing a woman is unable to pay for a handbag because she was speaking to her friend in Spanish earlier.

“The main goal is to really educate people on unconscious bias, the way all we make snap judgments on the way people look and sound,” tour coordinator Anthony Petrowski told The Sun. “We’re just trying to educate them so they can be more aware of their own unconscious bias and then they can change the world one person at a time … so they can be more diverse and inclusive in their own lives.”

The event was hosted by CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion, a consortium of chief executive officers dedicated to promoting diversity and inclusion in the workplace. The organization launched in 2017 and was spearheaded by Tim Ryan, U.S. chairman and senior partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers — one of the world’s largest accounting and consultancy firms.

On its website, there are two pledges: one for CEOs and another personal pledge entitled “I Act On.” Cornell President Martha Pollack signed the “I Act On” pledge, which prompted the “Check Your Blindspots” tour to visit Cornell, according to the event description. The pledge encourages signatories to be aware of their own biases and to foster an inclusive environment in their communities.

Dean of Students Vijay Pendakur listens to one of the simulations.

Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Dean of Students Vijay Pendakur listens to one of the simulations.

Increasing diversity and inclusion has been one of Pollack’s priorities since she became president in April 2017.  A presidential task force was formed for the 2017 to 2018 academic year to examine “bigotry and intolerance” on campus amid a number of incidents of racial discrimination at Cornell.

Some institutional initiatives proposed by the task force included reforming the campus Code of Conduct to give it a more aspirational rather than punitive tone, creating awards for faculty and students committed to increasing diversity on campus and requiring the deans at each of Cornell’s schools give an annual diversity and inclusion report.

Christina Woods B.S. ’08 MHA ’09, who is a senior manager and representative of PwC at the event, saw the interactive tour as a way to put different instances of discrimination into a more tangible perspective.

“It’s both an audio and visual intensive walk-through of different blindspot scenarios,” Woods said. “You get to hear things that are maybe similar to other scenarios you’ve been through, but hearing other folks talk through it, it’s really designed to have you check and say, ‘Is that something strange? Is that a potential bias?’”

While Elizabeth Ederer ’21 enjoyed the tour, she believed that the people who visited the bus were already the ones most likely interested in issues of discrimination.

“I left it wishing it was more geared to college campus audiences,” Ederer said. “A lot of it was more for workplaces and work figures, but I wish it was geared more towards college students. I think the issue with it is that … people who are not aware of their unconscious biases are really not likely to go in.”

Henna Hussain ’21, on the other hand, saw the event as a way to make members of the Cornell community more cognizant of their own biases.

“I think it’s always good to have on your mind,” Hussain said. “If you’re experiencing [unconscious bias] everyday, even if you know it happens, you don’t always realize or remember, and especially at Cornell, sometimes you get in your own bubble. I think it’s a good reminder that this kind of [discrimination] is going on all around us.”