The last year has seen increased attention given in the popular media to implicit or unconscious bias, for instance:
- A May 2014 Inquiring Minds interview with neuroscientist David Omodio
- A November 2014 CNN report on racism without racists
- A 2-part This American Life story that aired February 2015 (part 1 & part 2).
- Also check out the Harvard Project Implicit website and their Implicit Association Test that “measures the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy).” There are a number of different tests you can take linked from this site.
Bias is a valuable evolutionary trait that helps us in cases where we have little information and a quick response is needed. But no two situations are precisely the same, and bias can quickly become dysfunctional precisely because they expansively use historical information but minimally use information from the current context.
But to try to be unbiased throughout our daily experiences is as unrealistic as trying to go without our sense of heat. Both are an evolutionary sensation and response system. However, another an important part of being human is that we have a conscious ability to reflect on and temper unconscious thought in order to bring balance to our responses. Denying bias just drives it further into an unconscious-but-still-active mechanism influencing our behavior. Acknowledging and developing skills to manage bias allows us to be more intentional in our behaviors.
The pieces mentioned above highlight both the hardwired nature of bias and also the ability to develop skills to recognize and manage dysfunctional behavior based on our biases. For instance, act 2 of part 2 of the This American Life segments spotlight in part the Las Vegas police department that has been using implicit bias awareness training to decrease police shooting of black men. In reflecting on this segment, it strikes me that police departments around the nation provide regular, extensive firearm training, but very few provide implicit bias awareness training, even though bias can be even more dangerous given how our biases come into play in so many more contexts than does a firearm. Each resource above also highlights how we may consciously work to be colorblind, but unconsciously skin color remains a very influential physical feature influencing our actions. If you’re still unconvinced, take some of the Implicit Association Tests available from the Harvard Project Implicit site yourself.
The concept of implicit bias can be a helpful way both the reduce disabling guilt and also to increase a sense of responsibility to manage our biases. But implicit bias can also become a way to once again deflect awareness of, and responsibility for, institutionalized racism. We need to be willing to also probe ways in which governmental and non-governmental people in power and also our institutions of civil society — church, family, mass media, school, libraries — have constructed narratives around, and worked to expand, our biases in ways that ultimately privilege some at the expense of others.
I’ve written a number of posts regarding white privilege and race as a social construct. But for the past few weeks I’ve been reflecting on the value of using implicit bias as a starting point for talking about race. However, individual self-reflection on, and behavior management of, our biases is only useful as long as we’re willing to understand it as one part of a broader racial justice agenda. We need to additionally recognize how as a corporate body our communities and nation have created/reinforced a bias based on skin color, and then also created a powerful set of social structures to harness those biases to privilege whites over people of color. These privileges can then be leveraged to advance white wealth and power. While not everyone succeeds, or even attempts, to leverage privilege, it remains an undeniable part of being white. And our implicit biases combined with our social structures serve as a dynamic duo reifying white supremacy — a racism without racists as described in the CNN article. Dismantling our unjust systems of racism require work both the individual and systemic level. The same is true for our other “isms” such as those based on gender, class, functional diversity, sexual preference, etc.
We can’t live without bias. It is a hardwired part of us. Rather, we need to be willing to acknowledge our biases and develop skills to consciously override them if we are to increase our own abilities to behave in more just ways. From the Harvard Project Implicit Frequently Asked Questions Section regarding the question “What can I do about an implicit bias preference that I don’t want?”
One solution is to seek experiences that could reverse or undo the patterns that created the unwanted preference. For example, you could choose to avoid watching television shows that promote negative stereotypes of women or minorities. You could read materials that opposes the implicit preference. You could interact with people or learn about people who counter your implicit stereotypes. You can work to remain alert to the existence of the unwanted implicit preference to make sure that it doesn’t influence your overt behavior. You can also try consciously planned actions that will compensate for your implicit preferences. For example, if you have an implicit preference for young people you can try to be friendlier toward elderly people. Research shows that implicit preferences are quite malleable so it is possible to manage and change them if you want to.
Personally, this means I’ve drastically reduced the number of TV shows and movies that I find acceptable to watch. Further, when I do watch something, I’ve worked aggressively to eliminate commercials, not only because they promote negative stereotypes but also artificially create needs that can only be satisfied through purchasing their products. This goes beyond video media, and we pay for a premium Pandora account and mostly listen to non-commercial radio to further avoid commercials. While having diverse friends is not sufficient to confront implicit bias, it can be a valuable component of a broader strategy. This is especially true when those friendships can, through hard and intentional work, develop a level of mutual trust that allows honest talk when we evidence biased thought and behaviors.
Finally, let me forward some questions I’ve found helpful to inform my personal work of self-reflection. While these were written to guide researchers in their engagement with study participants, I find it valuable in every aspect of both my vocation and avocation as I intersect with people different from me. These come from the paper “Race, Culture, and Researcher Positionality: Working through Dangers Seen, Unseen, and Unforeseen”; Author: H. Richard Milner IV ; Source: Educational Researcher, Vol. 36, No. 7 (Oct., 2007), pp. 388-400; Link: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30136070.
Researching the Self
- What is my racial and cultural heritage? How do I know?
- In what ways do my racial and cultural backgrounds influence how I experience the world, what I emphasize in my research, and how I evaluate and interpret others and their experiences? How do I know?
- How do I negotiate and balance my racial and cultural selves in society and in my research? How do I know?
- What do I believe about race and culture in society and education, and how do I attend to my own convictions and beliefs about race and culture in my research? Why? How do I know?
- What is the historical landscape of my racial and cultural identity and heritage? How do I know?
- What are and have been the contextual nuances and realities that help shape my racial and cultural ways of knowing, both past and present? How do I know?
- What racialized and cultural experiences have shaped my research decisions, practices, approaches, epistemologies, and agendas?
Researching the Self in Relation to Others
- What are the cultural and racial heritage and the historical landscape of the participants in the study? How do I know?
- In what ways do my research participants’ racial and cultural backgrounds influence how they experience the world? How do I know?
- What do my participants believe about race and culture in society and education, and how do they and I attend to the tensions inherent in my and their convictions and beliefs about race and culture in the research process? Why? How do I know?
- How do I negotiate and balance my own interests and research agendas with those of my research participants, which maybe inconsistent with or diverge from mine? How do I know?
- What are and have been some social, political, historical, and contextual nuances and realities that have shaped my research participants’ racial and cultural ways or systems of knowing, both past and present? How consistent and inconsistent are these realities with mine? How do I know?
Shifting from Self to System
- What is the contextual nature of race, racism, and culture in this study? In other words, what do race, racism, and culture mean in the community under study and in the broader community? How do I know?
- What is known socially, institutionally, and historically about the community and people under study? In other words, what does the research literature reveal about the community and people under study? And in particular, what do people from the indigenous racial and cultural group write about the community and people under study?
- Why? How do I know?
- What systemic and organizational barriers and structures shape the community and people’s experiences, locally and more broadly? How do I know?