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Lawyer and professor who focuses on diversity says sharing individual stories helps eliminate biases

Screenshot of students participate in a Zoom meeting with a professor and speaker

Eliminating unconscious bias takes conscious effort, “[but] we can do something about it,” said Tim Overton, an attorney and law professor who specializes in inclusion, diversity and race relations. He spoke at the BYU–Hawaii Legal Studies Zoom Forum on June 18. He said by sharing and listening to each others stories, we can overcome biases.

“There are many ways for biases to come into our daily lives. We talk about racial and gender bias, but we also can have appearance biases,” he said. 

Bridging the gap 

People can bridge the gap between those they feel are different by socializing and sharing stories, said Overton. “Good stories bind us to each other.” 

He explained how, as people hear stories, their brains release cortisol to heighten their attention and awareness, dopamine to make them happy and oxytocin to bind them to others, helping them feel empathy.

Christina Forrester, a senior from Florida majoring in political science, said, “I think that when you hear about a person’s life and get to know them, they become less of an object and you can relate to their humanity.

“I think this is how change happens– creating relationships with people that are different from you, and the first way to do that is to get to know their story.”

Affinity and confirmation biases, and the halo effect 

Fifteen years ago, Overton attended a boxing match with his brother. They did not know the boxers, but he noticed they were very similar in stature and wore the same clothing. However, one boxer was white, and the other was black.  

Overton said he automatically cheered for the black boxer and then questioned why he cheered for him. He wondered if it was because he felt he had more in common with the black boxer and worried that was why he had cheered against the white boxer. 

He said he now understands why he cheered for the black boxer– it was due to a concept known as the “affinity bias,” which means people feel more comfortable with those they feel similar to. 

He also described the “halo effect” as the tendency to think everything about a person is good because you like that person, while “confirmation bias” refers to people seeking information that confirms pre-existing beliefs or assumptions. 

Daniella Manusavaii, a junior from Samoa studying political science, said, “Being aware of my biases makes me want to go out and do something about it. Talk to people no matter what race. … I want to look at them as people, not just their physical features, but to look deep inside.”

Microaggressions

According to Overton, microaggressions are comments that demean or put down someone, usually based on ethnicity, race or sexuality. These include phrases such as, “That is so gay,” and questions like, “Where are you really from?” He said these commonly placed verbal, behavioral or environmental statements, whether intentional or unintentional, can demean and insult others.

Overton said, “It gives the impression that you are different, and you do not belong here. You are a guest here, and we are the standard, so you are different from us. It can have major effects on people, psychologically and unconsciously.”

To better explain the issue, he used metaphors saying diversity is inviting someone to the party, inclusion is asking them to dance and belonging is asking that person to teach you to dance. 

Karl Santiago, a senior from the Philippines studying political science, said, “This is valuable because it made me realize diversity is not enough to combat racism. I realized everyone must feel they belong in that party and that you and I have a responsibility to make everyone in the party feel that belonging.”

Overton speaks on Zoom while wearing business attire.