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What Was I Thinking? Understanding Implicit Bias

What comes to mind when you think about the color pink?

Who do you envision when you think of a corporate lawyer or CEO?

What physical attributes do you automatically assign to a basketball player?

If your first thought was feminine, white male, and tall, you are not alone. Those are common associations in our society, and examples of the unconscious mental shortcuts we make each day to assess the world around us. Often they are benign, but they can be damaging when applied to a person’s character, ability, or value.

A recent Wall Street Journal article exposed a disturbing study that found a college-saving imbalance between boys and girls. Most parents would never explicitly invest less in their daughter’s future because of her gender, but our biases are deeply embedded and may not even align with our stated beliefs.

Gender norms exist from colors and toys, to extra-curricular activities and careers, to acceptable emotional expression. As a parent of both a son and daughter now, it has been interesting to witness people’s discomfort or even disapproval when my son is emotional (but not my daughter). Even though I consciously support gender equality and work to avoid stereotypical gender norms, I can relate to that inner tug and often have to fight against it to help support who they are as individuals, exposing them equally to activities and opportunities based on their interests and not societal expectations.

It is much easier to understand implicit bias in the context of things like gender roles. But, the same conditioning also shows up around race. It’s just that most of us don’t like the implication that we are not good people, or worse -- that we are racist. But, these are not interchangeable terms, and we can’t let ourselves off the hook by shutting down the conversation.

A few years ago, I heard about the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, a series of tests on a variety of topics that measure implicit social cognition. I was just starting to find my voice around racial issues and was curious about what it would uncover, so I took the one on race. When my results showed a slight preference toward white people, I immediately felt ashamed and a little defensive. It was probably to be expected, based on my environment and experiences. But, it felt like just one more thing to feel self-conscious about, and impossible to overcome.

Ultimately, the reality check and discomfort fueled my desire to take action. Even more, it became a defining moment of awareness and a necessary step to awakening. It was the first time I saw myself as separate from the structure of society. It meant that I had the power to more intentionally align my values with my actions.

The fact is that none of us are immune from the impact of the structure of our society or the messages we have absorbed, whether direct or indirect. The media, our history books, even cartoons like Alvin and the Chipmunks often portray people of color as criminals. There is plenty of research out there about inter-group bias and the fact that it is our human nature to divide things into groups, judging other groups more harshly while being more lenient for our in-group.

The more I learned, the more I could see all the little ways that I make assumptions about other people, without getting to know their story or situation. When the roles are reversed, like when I have lost my patience with my kids at the grocery store or make a tough decision at work, I hope grace and understanding is offered to me rather than judgments about my intentions or character. I would hope that someone wouldn’t assign a motive to my actions based on the fact that I am white, or short, or female, or any other attribute that might separate me from them.

It made me question how often I do that to others, like seeing a black teenager wearing a hoodie. Would I assume he was a nice kid or up to no good? Would that thought even cross my mind if he were white? Or when I see a middle eastern person wearing a hijab or burka? How many wonderful people was I reducing or avoiding based on my fear and ignorance?

Recently, a white woman shared with me her story of interracial marriage in the 1960’s. When they moved to an integrated neighborhood, her husband felt the need to wear a business suit while moving their furniture into the house to send a message that he was a trustworthy and upstanding citizen. Certainly, we hope times have changed since then, but another friend of mine shared that last year (in 2016) when they moved to a new neighborhood, the police were called on their moving men, who happened to be black, because the neighbors assumed they were stealing! A few months ago, another friend of mine and her boyfriend were shopping in an upscale store nearby. Security was called on them while they browsed and followed them around the mall afterwards for no other reason than their skin color. These types of fears and associations are rooted in implicit bias.

Changing the system may be out of our hands, but we can control our level of consciousness for what drives our opinions and perspectives, begin to challenge our habits and thoughts, and change the cycle.

On the surface, it may seem like we have made a lot of progress in this country. In some ways we have. But, this goes well beyond changing policies. We must begin to address the mindsets and beliefs that have been passed down through generations, perpetuating division and segregation from people who are not like us. While we are seeing explicit racism coming out from the shadows and growing louder, it is implicit bias that maintains and exacerbates inequality in our country. Until we face it, we will not make meaningful change towards equity.

The point is not to feel blame or shame, or to mistake implicit bias for being a racist. It is to raise our awareness so that we can disrupt the patterns and live out our values more authentically. While it isn’t comfortable or easy to uncover these blind spots, it is essential to building more meaningful relationships with others, and designing a better future.

The goal is not perfection. It is progress and deeper connection -- with ourselves and others.


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