MSU claims using family photos as virtual backgrounds constitutes 'bias'

Icebreaker questions and video backgrounds supposedly have the potential to impose dominant social norms on coworkers.

Two professors claim video conferencing is full of “unconscious bias.”

MSU is attempting to solve these problems by giving a few suggestions on how to limit supposedly problematic language and virtual backgrounds.

The coronavirus pandemic has limited colleagues' ability to stay connected. Video conferencing platforms like Zoom have been essential in continuing work and schooling, especially at colleges and universities. With technology glitches, poor connection, and other errors that occur during online video calls, professors have stepped up to complicate students’ best outlet of communication even more.

On May 14, Michigan State University published an article highlighting claims from MSU Professor Amy Bonomi and University of Colorado Interim Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion Nelia Viveiros that there exists an “unconscious bias” in video conferencing meetings. 

The pair argues that these settings are a particularly ripe environment for people to unintentionally practice prejudice or stereotyping.

Viveiros and Bomoni claim that common vessels for “bias” during video conference calls are virtual meeting backgrounds such as family photos, or icebreaker questions that can serve to reinforce dominant social norms or minoritize coworkers. Bonomi adds that microaggressions are now communicated in virtual meetings just as they are in in-person meetings. 

[RELATED: MSU warns against ‘harmful language’ with microaggression boards]

“Unconscious bias includes using language, symbolism and nonverbal cues that reinforce normative social identities with respect to gender, race, sexual preference, and socioeconomic status,” said Bonomi. “For example, when the virtual background of a Zoom meeting attendee has pictures of his or her wedding, it unintentionally reinforces the idea that marriage is most fitting between opposite sexes.”

“In a recent videoconference, we were asked the ‘most fun thing you’ve done with your family during quarantine.’ Participant answers ranged from ‘gardening with my husband’ to ‘dance parties with my family,’” Viveiros said. 

MSU’s article explains that sharing these types of experiences “crowd out the experiences of people with minoritized social identities and that “asking about ‘fun family things’ prevented several Latinx attendees from sharing their experiences of losing family members to novel coronavirus."

In order to mitigate the impact of this brand of “bias,” MSU offers students some suggestions.

“Be conscious about what your 'virtual environment' might symbolize. It’s unlikely that in face-to-face meetings, participants be seated in front a wall of family photos. While virtual backgrounds may be a way for participants to express themselves, it is important to understand who is being excluded and included with these types of actions,” reads MSU’s post, citing Bonomi’s suggestion that “to mitigate the potential of exclusion, some organizations are guiding participants to consider background choices to reflect the organization’s values, as opposed to personal choice.”

The university also told students to use conference calls to “challenge microaggressions,” which “can be done by naming microaggressions on the spot or addressing them privately.”