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Combating Cultural Bias in Times of Global Crisis: Q&A With Sandra Upton

Addressing cultural biases that have resulted from the COVID-19 outbreak is one key way we can maintain a sense of order and social good in a chaotic time.

It would be an understatement to say these are unusual times. Our lives and livelihoods are being constantly disrupted by impacts of a powerful entity we are struggling to manage. But there are impacts of this global pandemic that are more within our grasp, that may not be at the forefront of many people’s and organizations' priorities. One such impact is cultural bias—negative stereotypes about a cultural group that have been voiced, and even acted on, out of fear and panic.

However, understanding what is at the root of these biases, and even more, how we can address them for the betterment and safety of everyone, is one important way we can maintain a sense of order and social good in an otherwise chaotic time. We reached out to Sandra Upton, vice president of educational initiatives at the Cultural Intelligence Center, to better understand why some of these harmful stereotypes are manifesting during an already challenging global event, and how business schools can help.

What are some new or amplified ways we might start to see cultural biases surface during this global health event?

I think we’ve already started to see these biases surface. For example, many of us have heard others refer to the COVID-19 pandemic as the “Chinese Virus.” This is unfortunate because although the virus may have originated in China, it doesn’t mean an entire country or cultural group is responsible for the outbreak. In addition, the consequences of words like this not only reinforce negative stereotypes or biases about an entire cultural group.

Moreover, in this case, this kind of language and thinking has actually caused verbal attacks and even physical harm to Asians everywhere, some of whom have never even been to China. Words matter, especially when negative associations are attached to certain cultural groups. And, similar to the virus, they spread and infect people’s thinking, behaviors, and actions. They cause the affected people to feel unsafe and disrespected.

How can business schools and organizations combat the negative stereotyping and stigmas associated with the COVID-19 outbreak—or any global health crisis?

At the CQ Center we are privileged to work with hundreds of business schools, institutions, and businesses around the country and world to develop their students’ and employees’ cultural intelligence (CQ) or skill to work effectively across cultures. CQ is the strategy and solution for managing our biases, stereotypes, and stigmas.

If nothing else, our current crisis reminds us that we live in a world in which a local event, good or bad, can quickly have a global impact. The first step in applying CQ during a crisis is acknowledging that we are all connected. Business schools and employers worldwide all have a responsibility to equip students and employees with CQ. So when a crisis comes, instead of being reactive and defaulting to our biases, we’ll be prepared to work cross-culturally in respectful, innovative, and effective ways.

How can we develop a greater awareness of our own unconscious biases in this context?

I think the first step is acknowledging that we all have them, even in this context. A colleague of mine who was helping to plan a large international conference earlier this year shared that one of the participants asked, “Are we banning all Asians from attending?” Seriously? The answer was, of course, no! But the bigger question is—where did the question come from? It came from that individual’s fear, lack of knowledge, and negative assumptions. We all are susceptible and can be guilty of this.

For example, if I were to ask you, “If you were at the grocery store and an Asian person wearing a protective face mask walked down your aisle, what would be your first thought? Would a part of you feel slightly anxious?" You might say, “Well, I’d feel that way with anyone.” Maybe or maybe not. But confirmation bias says that we tend to seek information about individuals or certain cultural groups that confirms pre-existing beliefs or assumptions. If, based on regular comments we hear from others or see in the media, that Asians are responsible for the coronavirus, when we see someone from that cultural group, our subconscious mind confirms that this is true and tells us to be more fearful and cautious of that person. We need to be aware of these tendencies.

The second step is to recognize that awareness alone is not enough. We must make a conscious decision to not allow our biased thoughts (all Asians are responsible for and carriers of the coronavirus) to convert to biased behaviors or actions toward others. So when I encounter someone from that cultural group, I’m going to check my thinking by asking myself, “Where did these thoughts come from?” And “What are the facts?” More significantly, I’m going to challenge myself to respond and behave the same way I would with any other individual or cultural group, particularly those to which I tend to attach positive associations.

Why might people be comforted by “othering” in times of crisis? What are some helpful tools for shifting that thinking?

As I mentioned earlier, we are all connected. It’s easy to embrace this idea in good times. Not so much in bad times. But in challenging times like these, we need to seek ways to be part of culturally intelligent solutions for the greater good, not just for ourselves. Research shows that we are able to deal with our challenges better when we reach out and help others. Not only does it produce positive feelings, but it also reinforces our sense of connection to others and helps meet our most basic psychological needs. So it not only feels good, but it is good for us.

Just recently, a YouTube video from Australia went viral. It showed three women in a store fighting over toilet paper. We’ve all heard about or perhaps even witnessed similar incidents around the world. Fear and a scarcity mentality can bring out the worst in us. But we need to shift our thinking by learning the facts (i.e., paper companies around the world are working 24 hours to ensure that these products are in supply) and using that information to inform our actions and our care and concern for others.

What are some ways business school (or higher education) stakeholders—faculty, learners, community—can help feel globally connected and inclusive in a time of reduced mobility and, in many cases, newly enforced online learning?

Great question! Obviously taking full advantage of technology will continue to be a big part of the equation. In addition to the formal online classes, we can continue to use social media as a platform for staying connected with each other, both professionally and socially. Encourage students and faculty to take time to develop what we call CQ Knowledge, which is our understanding about how cultures are similar and different. It’s been fascinating to observe how the countries most affected by the coronavirus have responded in different ways to the same situation. The responses are largely based on cultural values and differences.

Encourage faculty and students to virtually expand their network of relationships, both domestically and globally. For example, students or faculty can start a Facebook or LinkedIn group with business schools and students from across the globe. They can use these groups as platforms to share insights, perspectives, and resources from different cultures.

This is also a great time for business schools and the private sector to partner and think about more innovative experiential training that creates virtual cross-cultural experiences for students. I think most of us recognize that after we come out of this crisis there will be a new normal for how we do business and engage with each other. Doing so in unbiased and culturally intelligent ways will need to be a non-optional component to that changed world.


Headshot of Sandra Upton, vice president for educational initiatives at the Cultural Intelligence Center based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Sandra Upton is vice president for educational initiatives at the Cultural Intelligence Center based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @sandraupton10.