Seeing and labeling people based on race, ethnicity, or skin color has become such an integral part of America’s mental construct that we don’t even think about or consider it to be a bias. In many ways, this is a natural progression of well-intentioned diversity programs, implemented in the name of inclusion and integration.

However, by identifying ourselves or lumping others into narrowly defined categories, we erase the person behind the label, split ourselves into groups, and ultimately create more distance than connection. According to Gallup, Americans who worry a great deal about race relations have risen from 17 percent in 2014 to 37 percent in 2018. Isn’t it ironic that racial tensions are on the rise in spite of the great deal of attention that has been given to promoting diversity? How could this be?

Having grown up in different cultures across the East and West, and having had a 30-year global business career with a wide range of multinational organizations, I’ve experienced firsthand that when we emphasize the labeling of people by race or ethnicity, we reinforce divisions rather than foster integration. I’ve learned that human connection—not highlighting differences—is the foundation for building a world of acceptance.

I have been primarily perceived as an Asian-Korean-American-woman-minority through my 47 years of living, studying, and working in the U.S. But what I want to be viewed and treated as is Soo, a person and a colleague, not a label or a stereotype. Just like everyone else on this planet, I am far more than my race, skin color or gender.

Think about when you meet a new colleague: Do you first see a black, white, Asian or Hispanic person? Or do you see an intelligent or friendly individual, who happens to be black, white, Asian or Hispanic? This question can be a great way to begin to understand your lens—your mindset, biases, and the energy you send out.

By examining our lens, we can begin to shift our awareness. Every one of us has a unique lens, like fingerprints. Beginning at birth, our lens, molded by all of our experiences, memories, values, beliefs, perspectives and attitudes, processes the world around us. We all carry our own personal energy that is a reflection of our lens, our sum total. Each day, we emit that energy like an antenna that sends waves to those around us, positively or negatively, consciously or unconsciously, shaping our relationships.

Here is an exercise that you can practice anywhere: Pick a random person and take a mental note of your thoughts and feelings about that person. What was your first impression? Was it their skin color, physical attributes or gender? Or was it their energy, expression or attitude?

This exercise helps me to be aware of my lens. By training our lens and acknowledging how we assess people, we can shift our consciousness to see beyond labels and interact within a shared humanity.

As an individual, we might not be able to enact major policy changes or move the diversity needle overnight; however, we can each make small and steady positive shifts. Through our collective efforts, we can narrow divides, connect with and embrace differences, and bring about growth and an esprit de corps in our communities.