The Height of Unintended Bias


The Southern Poverty Law Center held a Health Fair yesterday at which employees could get their blood pressure checked, visit with fitness experts and determine their fat-to-muscle ratio. 

Our screening began with a familiar ritual of childhood physicals: We each stepped onto a platform, stood much straighter than usual and had our height measured.  And then something very interesting happened. Each and every person, upon hearing the result, insisted they were taller, questioned the accuracy of the device (a steel measure) and reacted as if they’d been denied a birthright.  

This was as true for those of us who need a stepstool to reach the top shelf of a cabinet as for those who always tower above the crowd. Rationalizations abounded (the spine compresses during the day!), but no one questioned the underlying assumption that it was good to be tall.

Needless to say, not a single person complained, “Hey! I’m not that tall!”

We’ve heard this before, of course. Our society gives a well-documented advantage to the physically elevated, especially men. Every presidential election season brings forth the analysis of the candidates’ relative height (think 1988 and Michael Dukakis), along with the assertion that James Madison, who stood at a mere 5’ 4” but had a towering intellect, could never be elected today. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book  Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, discusses the privileges that accompany height and points out that tall men dominate the ranks of CEOs, with more than half over six feet.

As I listened to my colleagues kvetch about having inches stolen from their height (mine was only one-half inch less than I claimed on my driver’s license), I reflected on how I had contributed in countless small ways to a bias so prevalent that it’s practically invisible. After all, as my son moved through his teen-aged years, hadn’t I relentlessly measured him, gotten excited each time he gained an inch, and was ecstatic when he first passed my height and then grew taller than his father?

We regularly congratulate and encourage kids who are tall just for being tall. But do we ever find anything good to say to those who are short? It would be easy to dismiss our thoughtless preference as benign, but in reality it shapes the way we all—kids included—see ourselves. Proof? None of the adults with whom I work, as well educated and self-assured as they might be, wanted to see themselves as shorter.

And that made me wonder: What other implicit biases do I have, and how have I reinforced them? What about you?     

Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.


The Black Elephant on the

Submitted by Brody on 13 February 2011 - 12:45pm.

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