A Lesson Learned on Bias


Many years ago in Switzerland I had a voice student named Catherine. Catherine taught me something I've never forgotten, although it will take me a lifetime to fully put it into practice. A little background: as you may know, Switzerland is composed of three main regions. By far the largest is the German-speaking area in the north, center, and east. There is a small Italian-speaking region bordering Italy in the south, and the French-speaking region, where I lived for a total of six years, in the southwest.

The French speakers, whom I of course am the most acquainted with, have a bit of an attitude toward the German speakers. They detest the Swiss German language (there are dozens of different dialects, all of which sound different from the High German spoken in Germany), and for the most part would rather speak English with a German-speaking Swiss. There are of course exceptions, as many French speakers have Swiss German ancestry or relatives. (Personally, I love the sing-song lilt of Swiss German, but I'm not Swiss.)

Catherine is a French speaker, born and raised in the Lausanne area. So what is the lesson she taught me? At some point she realized she harbored some of the bias against German speakers common among her fellow French speakers. She then did something crazy -- she looked for and found a job in Zurich, the largest city in Switzerland, and moved there for a full year just to get to know some German-speaking Swiss personally as well as learn their language.

She turned around and looked her prejudice in the face.

And of course Catherine came home having made some dear friends and with a genuine appreciation for these people who, after all, are her compatriots.

All because she did the difficult work of facing herself. And once she had identified the problem, she took tangible steps to do something about it.

This continues to challenge me. You may think I'm bias-free because of what I preach. The truth is that we all have biases, and there is never a lack of work to be done in overcoming them. So with an occasional "ouch," I often think of Catherine.

I'm not sure she learned all that much from me in the area of singing, but I certainly learned a life-long lesson from her.

Any of this ring true for you?