unconscious bias

Work-in-progress, and I’m not talking about my next novel: Live-blogging Dolly Chugh’s _The Person You Mean to Be_

This is part 2 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. And you can buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.

…If I have a growth mindset about drawing, I believe that I can improve my stick figures with effort, time, and feedback. The alternative, a fixed mindset, is where I see myself as fully formed—either as someone who is terrible at drawing or wonderful at drawing or somewhere in between—and destined to stay that way. The fixed mindset is an “either/or” mindset because it allows no room for being a work-in-progress.

Dolly Chugh, The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, pg 24

During a group activity I was participating in, one of the group members kept on calling out for his “Cambodian wife.” Earlier, he’d introduced me to our colleagues as his “Korean wife.” When the Cambodian wife line got no answers, he switched to asking for his “Vietnamese wife.”

I am none of these things, but it was apparent he was calling for me: I was the only Asian woman on the course.

Let it be said that my relationship to this person is jovial, and long. It involves banter and beer and a lot of loudness. This had been going on for years before I finally said I’d had enough. “Stop,” I told him. “You’re not saying these things because you think Korean, Cambodian, Vietnamese women are to be respected. You’re saying it because you think they’re caricatures. And I’m not any of those things, anyway.”

“I know,” he said, and “I’m sorry. I really thought we were having such a good time.”

“You were,” I said, with a twinge of guilt. “But I’m not. It’s hurtful. You have to stop saying things like that.”


I don’t believe my friend and I have ever really recovered from this exchange. But I’m willing to bet that those of you reading this probably are focused on the fact that I felt guilty telling him these things. “Why?” some of you are saying to the screen. “Why on earth would you feel guilty?”

I’m feeling guilty because I wish I had said something before. I wasn’t ever the kind of person to enjoy a joke like that, but for most of my adult life I just swam with the jokes, believing them to be what I had to work with, to deal with, as a minority in America. I wanted to get along, so I just let them go.

Like Sammy Davis, Jr., I suppose, when he endured being the “Man of the Hour” at Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast. Oh, you, haven’t seen it? It’s an hour long, but you only have to watch the first eight minutes to be party to jokes about everything from watermelons to lynching:

(As always with YouTube videos, don’t read the comments. They made me nuts.)

“Oh,” you might say, “it’s just a sign of the times.”

It was this kind of thinking that led to my belief that I could only endure. I didn’t think it mattered enough for me to stand up and say something. But then I realized that the people around me weren’t necessarily laughing. And when I brought up the incident and the previous ones to leadership of the event we were at, they said, “Oh. When we first saw it happening, we took cues from you. We saw you were laughing, so we just went along with it.”

Later, they told me that they had mistaken it for something personal to our relationship, which I maybe could have stood for. And then they said, “We thought it might be an American thing.”

When Chugh writes about growth mindset versus fixed mindset, she’s mostly talking about individuals, and the way we see ourselves and each other. But I’m thinking more about society, and the way we see it. I’m thinking about how the way we see ourselves as individuals feeds into the way society is, and whether or not it’s within our power to do anything about it.

I was operating under the assumption that there was nothing I could do to change this. “It is what it is” had become my motto. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ had become my lifestyle.


Take, for example, my allergy to math. For a long time, I caricatured myself: “You’re talking to the only Asian ever to have scored a D- in Algebra,” I’d say at cocktail parties, by way of eliciting a laugh, or by way of making myself stand out, maybe.

During a game of Cards Against Humanity, a close friend drew a set of cards that had her nearly choking on her drink. They were so funny–and seemed so apropos–that I took a photo of them. All of my friends know and believe that I am terrible at math. I have told them so. They never let me calculate the tip.

But in another interaction, a friend looked at me curiously when I ran the line about my being a terrible Asian/math person. “Why perpetrate that stereotype?” he asked, quietly, and I went into a corner to sit and Think About What I Had Done.

And in yet another interaction, my friend Roz’s mother, who teaches fifth grade, put on her teacher voice and said, “You’re not bad at math, Yi Shun. You’ve just never made it a priority.”

Hey. I like that. And even if my not making math a priority does lead to my being terrible at math, well…it doesn’t mean I can’t be better at it one day. Everything is a work in progress, even my math skills.


I think seeing systems—and ourselves!—as flexible, and works in progress, has true application beyond our desires to be good. A belief that we can change the systems around us to work more efficiently is a valuable, healthy way forward.

A friend works as a programs director in a small city government. She has inherited what can only be described as a dysfunctional workplace. For instance, when she doesn’t respond to emails within ten minutes, the person or resident who is asking for help or information either calls her directly or comes to her desk, even if she’s specifically asked for that time alone, to work on grant proposals or paperwork or admin. When I told her I had moved to checking e-mail only three times a day, she laughed merrily and told me the system wouldn’t tolerate that.

My friend essentially works every single weekend as a direct result of this system.

I don’t know anything about working in a city government. But I think that there are lots of ways she can challenge the status quo to make it work better for her, even if she’s having to press against many years of doing things one fixed way. And people can change, too. My friend’s claim that the people around her won’t respect her time is a false claim, I believe. I think she can probably encourage them, in her role as programs director, to see that the workplace can produce even better programming than ever before if she can cut down on things like e-mail and interruptions of a more obvious nature, like people opening her closed office door or stepping into her blocked-off calendar.


In another book I read recently, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, the authors write about how important it is to recognize the idea that conversations that feel bad may be affecting us because they threaten our ideas of who we are.

In the case of the first interaction I described, my friend thought he was being jovial. He thinks of himself as being funny, the guy who gets the laughs. I thought of myself as the cool girl, the one who could roll with the punches and “take it,” whatever “it” was.

In the case of my friend and her dysfunctional workplace, she may see herself as the woman who can work with whatever difficulty she’s presented with. She may not want to rock the boat.

I don’t know what’s happening yet, in the case of me and the mathematics thing. It’s probably a combination of wanting to be the cool girl, the girl who can laugh at herself in straight-talk fashion, and the girl who will never rock the boat.


Challenging the system feels like touching a cactus spine, to me. “I wonder if…” and then, the inevitable, ouch! But sometimes, you touch a cactus spine, and you think, Well, hunh. That’s not so bad. If you touch it gently enough, you might even try it again, until you eventually see that cactus as not a terrible Danger Plant (TM), but just as something to be navigated.

In the extended version of this metaphor, and if you’re me, you might find yourself loving cacti, and then saddled with an unhealthy obsession with all things related.

Or you can draw your own metaphors. Whatever way you choose to look at it, the best systems are the flexible ones. And those systems comprise flexible people, with growth mindsets.

smiling cactus wearing a hat made of flowers

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

It’s broke: Love it enough to fix it

When I was in college, eleventy trillion years ago, I was editor-in-chief of the paper which served the five colleges that made up our undergraduate system. I think I did that for a year or so.

Our offices were in the basement of the college bookstore; I had a key and a stipend and there were a few scandals during my tenure on the paper overall, from writer to news editor to editor-in-chief. I really can’t remember what they were about or who they involved, probably because my hippocampus or frontal lobe or amygdala or whatever or maybe all of it wasn’t developed enough to comprehend what was actually happening.

At any rate, all of this led to some indignation and righteousness and then I became editor-in-chief, and this led to a good friend of mine sitting in the living room of one of the dorms we used to hang out in at another college (??? why did we do this? so strange. i know we had friends there, but…anyway), talking about the newspaper.

I remember distinctly telling him I thought it was broken. And I remember Jake being royally pissed off. He was red in the face, even. “How can you say that?” he asked. “This is your thing now. You should be proud of it!”

“I am proud of it,” I said. “There’s just a lot that needs to be fixed about it. It needs a lot of changes.”

Jake wouldn’t budge. He couldn’t comprehend how you can love a thing, respect it, and want it to change. He saw it as the height of disrespect that I would tell him that it needed changes.

But see, for me, loving a thing means wanting to change it. You love a thing despite of all its flaws, or maybe even because of them. You see it for everything it is. You know it so, so well that you are an expert in its weak points, its pain points, its very realness. And yet, you continue to work at it, because you see what it can become.

College was a long-ass time ago. (I graduated in 1996.) But I’ve never forgotten that conversation, and it pops up in my memory now and again.

Most recently, I remembered it because of that terrible tweet from our commander-in-chief, saying that four congresswomen should “go back to the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” (It’s missing a hyphen, but whatever.) Yes, yes, three of the four women he was addressing are from America already, but I was struck by how intent 45 is on how great this nation is. Lawmakers go into office, as I understand it, to effect change in a place they love, not to sit on their laurels.

But then, probably because I can’t stand to think of 45 very long before my head explodes and I make yet more wrinkles in my lips from unsavory expressions, I pivoted to the conversation I had with Jake, all those years ago: How I feel the way I do because of the way I grew up. And how it’s probably the same with Jake.

I don’t know much about the way Jake grew up, actually. I’ve visited his home town only once, and his family home on the same visit. (On this same visit, Jake ribbed me about being a baseball fan who doesn’t know what a “balk” is. “You know, I think it’s really weird that you call yourself a baseball fan but you don’t know what a balk is,” he said, and I returned that there was so much more to love about baseball than its infuriating intricacies.)

But I do know about the way I grew up. In my household, criticism was a daily pill. No! Pills you take once a day. This was more like windows, peeing, air–criticism was always there. My brother and I were criticized–too fat, too sickly, too loud, too stupid–as a manifestation of our parents’ love. Nothing was good enough, and so nothing would ever be perfect.

This backdrop manifests itself in my adult life in other ways, too. When I am running with my young dog, Huckleberry, I give him grades for how he behaves. If he looks at a dog passing by on the other side of the street and doesn’t lunge or drag me in its direction or bark, that’s 98% good. If he lunges, that’s 73%. If he lunges and barks and drags me, that’s 33% and no cookie.

If he goes right on by, that’s 100%. Perfect.

I actually tell him this. “Good boy, Huckleberry! One hundred percent! I am so impressed!”

Or, “What was that? That was terrible. Sixty-five percent. Not even close to passing.”

What happens in my brain when I run with Huckleberry. Why, why?!

Friends, I hate grades. I hate them with the fire of a thousand flaming Dumpsters.* I hate them because I am bad at them, and because they were used as leverage all my life. I avoid them whenever possible in my teaching, preferring to assess my students qualitatively.

And yet, with the least assuming creature in my life, there they are. Bang. I cannot escape them.

You probably already know where this is going. I am fascinated by the role our upbringings have in who we are as adults. I think I can trace everything I do today to what happened to me and what I was exposed to as a kid. I am fascinated, in short, by unconscious, or implicit, bias.


For the next few weeks, or however long it takes, I’ll be working through a live-blog** of Dolly Chugh’s book _The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. Chugh is a social psychologist, and I admire her work. I learned a lot from her book, and the posts are meant to be a way for me to illustrate for myself the lessons I’ve learned, and they can also be seen as a way for you to think about some of the issues she raises. Some these issues are: Why we believe what we do; how to broaden our perspectives; how to talk to people who don’t have our perspectives and not go completely batsh*t.

I made a couple annotations, or something.

For anyone who’s ever thought of themselves as a good person, for anyone who wants to be a better person, for anyone who feels stymied about how to be a good person when there are so many varying definitions of “good person”–this book is for you. I hope my posts can supplement your reading of it.***

Talk to you soon. And if you’ve read this book and want to discuss with me, drop me a line: yishun@thegooddirt.org

*I used this phrase in a comment to my class awhile ago. They have to cite themselves to avoid self-plagiarizing, so I’ll do the same here: Yi Shun Lai, Brightspace class announcement, 7.22.19, SNHU Online MFA program.

**It’s not technically a live-blog. I’ve already read the thing. But I didn’t know what else to call it.

***I find seeing examples of things helps to cement an understanding of it, so this is also for me.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.