Challenging Subconscious Bias

A recent account from Olivia Omega, Camber Outdoors Director of Marketing & Communication and a challenge to overcome subconcious bias…

Today I went to a new coffee shop/tea brewery/bar to work and take a couple calls. I noticed I was the only person of color. Not a big deal at all. I navigate this every day. I stand at the register for what felt like 10 minutes. Giving ample time and then some for good measure, I started to feel overlooked. There wasn’t a rush of people, no lines and plenty of staff. So I continue to wait. I force a little smile to show I’m approachable and friendly.

I read the menu 4 or 5 times to preoccupy myself from the little tinge of embarrasment that set in as I was clearly being ignored. When someone finally asked me what I would like to order, they avoided all eye contact. I intentionally make small talk by asking what his favorite tea is and what’s most popular. Exhausting. Short in his answer, I make sure to be super polite as I order. Then instead of not tipping for lack of service, I tip well to show that I’m not what you think I am or what you think we are.

I take my drink and move to the patio, intentionally smiling at those that stare as I sit down. My focus shifted to my face. My smile had slowly faded and I’m sure my RBF was clearly showing. I curled the edges of my mouth upward as to say “don’t be afriad or turned off, I’m nice.” Exhausting. I worked for 40 minutes with a smile. Everyone on the patio had been checked on at least twice. Even the dog that’s sitting near my feet got a quick “hey there” from the waitress. It takes a lot for me to feel uncomfortable, but now I am. A black man leaves. He was a cook. I want to leave too, but I haven’t finished my super expensive iced tea. I did a quick appearance check. I’m wearing a wedding ring so hopefully I’m not being mistaken for a random kid. I was presentable, in a dress and heels, not bummy. I have my laptop open so I have a purpose. I have a drink sitting in front of me that I paid for so I’m not loitering. I’m wearing a headwrap…maybe it’s the headwrap. Is it the skin color? Maybe it’s the red lip! Maybe I look out of place because I’m on the fancy side. I continue to casually smile at those that are in the vicinity or that walk by to continue to show that I’m friendly and approachable. Maybe they assume that I’ll reject their kindless.

I’ve been here for over an hour and a half. It begins to rain a little. Everyone starts to move under the awning. I think about how I’ll move too and make a little joke about Denver weather so the couple near me will laugh and the ice will finally be broken. I sit in the rain for a few minutes. I have a headwrap on so it’s cool. It stopped raining so I stayed outside. It started raining again. I don’t want to go inside. I’m alone out here now and oddly feel less isolated. But I have to pee. I don’t want to go inside, walk by eveyone and fake smile all the way to the restroom. I wondering if I can make it all way home.

It’s probably time to leave. Oh look, someone brought me a glass of water…


Here’s why I was intentional in not sharing the name of the restaurant. And why I choose action instead of anger. I’ve experienced ugly, toxic, racial hatred before. And this wasn’t it. This was America. This was implicit and subconscious bias. I didn’t feel hated. I felt inconsequential, insignificant, invisible, and misunderstood. What was happening here is happening everywhere. What am I going to do? Boycott everywhere? Your workplaces? Blast the airport and the King Soopers near Cherry Creek Mall and the mall itself? Send hate mail to my kid’s school? Tell all of you not to go to Union Station anymore? I will support businesses of color and establishments that welcome people of color, but I also won’t allow anyone to control where I go. I/we will be seen and I will be part of the solution. I refuse to add to the hatred that keeps us here.

So what’s the solution? I’ve gotten many supportive messages, texts, calls, and comments. And they are appreciated. But instead of “I’m sorry” how about “I’m working.” Working to tear down your own subconscious bias and leverage white privilege to create engagement. There are plenty of white acquaintances that like me, but don’t particularly “care for” black people. If you were sitting in that same restaurant on the same day, would you have gone out of your way to make eye contact and say hi to the black woman who was clearly being “othered” and marginalized? Would you have called over the waitress as a reminder to wait on them? Or would it have been “none of your business”? Would you have looked away like everyone else in that restaurant because the situation was clearly uncomfortable for everyone? Let’s make it all of our business to intentionally engage with those that don’t look like they belong.

While I don’t have all of the answers and a solution may seem out of reach, I do have a suggestion (thanks to Denver DEI expert Mo Abdullah of Cultural Energized):

1. Challenge your assumptions!

Pause and think, is this emotion/thought rational? How did I receive this information? Then, make a better decision.

THE CHALLENGE: Say something friendly to someone you find yourself avoiding simply because of their appearance. Today, I told the skinhead, “racist-looking” biker at the gas station with the “I’d rather be thrifting” shirt on that I loved it and loved thrifting. He smiled and said he appreciated the comment. I was scared (look up this week’s riots in Colorado Springs). It turned out cool.

2. Acknowledge that differences exist

And embrace those differences (vs. colorblindness or identity-blindness). Stop saying “I don’t see color.” See it! All of it! And get comfortable with it.

THE CHALLENGE: Put yourself in places where you are the minority. The only one. Sit with it. Feel it. Get uncomfortable. And go talk to people. Ask them their stories.

3. Be willing to make mistakes and show up again anyway

THE CHALLENGE: I’ve challenged those around me to come with me back to the restaurant in Denver. Let’s continue this conversation. Let’s get to know the owner and share our stories. Let’s challenge assumptions and restructure all of our biases.

I’d love to hear your story, how you’re challenging your biases and intentionally being part of the solution. Olivia

Formerly the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition (OIWC)


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