Perception Isn't Reality: Understanding Implicit Bias And Why We Need To Change
There's no quick fix, but there are ways to change.
This piece was submitted from a member of our enthusiastic community of readers. If you’re interested in sharing your opinion on any cultural, political or personal topic, check out our how-to post to learn more.
What if I told you that you see the world through a collection of automatic photo filters. Each one giving you a different way to look at everything and everyone. Rose colored filters filled with flower crowns for some and unflattering, distorted filters for others. That’s what living with implicit bias is like. Constantly seeing things through a filter that gives us a doctored photo of something or someone each and every time. Never giving us an objective view, but only letting us see what our filter allows for us to see.
Coined by Harvard Professors Dr. Mahzarin Banaji and Dr. Anthony Greenwald, implicit bias is defined as the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. For the sake of this concept, we can think of our mind as split into two parts: conscious and unconscious. Our conscious mind represents what we consciously think of the world we live in. For example, a person could outwardly state that Black Lives Matter, think that women can be equally, if not more, qualified for a role in finance than a man, and believe that you should be able to love and marry whoever you want.
Our unconscious mind, however, operates under the influence of all of the things that we’ve been socialized by. Our family, friends, neighborhoods, religious institutions, and media, to name a few, are all pivotal elements in shaping how we view the world and those that live within it. What we sometimes fail to recognize is that these things leave a mark on our socialization. So much so, that they influence the thoughts of our unconscious mind, which in turn influence behaviors and actions that may counter what we consciously believe. So they may proclaim those aforementioned things, but could still innately reach for their wallet after a Black man passes them by, hire the unqualified man over the woman or be uncomfortable engaging with members from the LGBTQ+ community.
This is how implicit bias affects us all. It contradicts our conscious behaviors with unconscious thoughts. Being that we all carry implicit biases, we bring them into everything we engage in. From the office to the dinner table, implicit bias becomes an unknown pervasive part of society. And this is where it becomes so impactful. Decisions are made on a daily basis on the behalf of thousands, and sometimes to their detriment. The implicit bias of one can be the downfall of many - as we’ve seen time and again. Take education as an example. An educator who openly claims allyship with the Black community advises his students on what courses they should take. He advises a student, a white, young man with interest in engineering, to go into courses that are more academically rigorous; however, in his advisement of another student, who is a Black, young woman interested in engineering, he gears her towards less rigorous courses with the assumption that she’ll need more support academically – based on an implicit bias of black intellectual inferiority that he’s been inundated with by the media, while growing up.
Now, these groups of students are on two different tracks. The White student will have a more academically rigorous course on his transcript, that will could give him access to higher level courses within that subject, which could lead to a more favorable review in the college admissions process, and potentially access to more college engineering programs that are academically rigorous and prestigious. Whereas the Black student will have a less rigorous course on her transcript, that may not give her access to the same higher-level courses within that subject as her white counterpart, which may lead to a less favorable review in the college admissions process, thus giving her less access to colleges with engineering programs as strong as the ones the White student has access to.
This doesn’t even take into consideration how the Black student is also facing adversity based on the intersection of her identities. The futures of these two students are already on two different tracks, with the Black student on one lined with fewer opportunities than the White student. All from a simple recommendation from an individual who proclaims allyship, but with an implicit bias created by the narrative of intellectual incapability of Black students. No one is saying this person isn’t outwardly showing allyship for the Black community outwardly, but what is also evident is that implicit bias is pervasive and if this person is exposed to a plethora of narratives of black intellectual inferiority, it can ultimately show up in their engagement with Black students regardless of their conscious beliefs. Beyond the education system, implicit bias shows up in the criminal justice system (e.g. longer sentences for Black folks), healthcare (e.g. care of pregnant Black women), and business (e.g. avoiding the review of “ethnic sounding” names) to name a few. These subtle behaviors create large waves that push and perpetuate the system of power, privilege, and oppression through their influence on various institutions, ideologies, interpersonal relationships, and on ourselves.
Due to socialization, we have all been imbued with different biases, marginalized folks included, and they play a role in our daily interactions. The oppression that some face does not absolve them from the implicit biases that have been omnipresent since the moment they were surrounded by their communities, media, and society at large. A gay man can still be plagued with the implicit bias that women aren’t inherently strong in STEM fields. An Asian woman can be influenced by the implicit bias of Black men being perceived as a physical threat, but this doesn’t have to be this way. Although it’s not a quick fix, there are steps that can be utilized to mitigate these behaviors:
1.) Acknowledge that everyone carries biases. The moment you realize this, the easier it becomes to recognize how it impacts our actions.
2.) Start to assess in which ways you’ve been socialized. Think about the communities you come from, your geographic region, and the media you’ve consumed up to this point. What have been the perspectives you’ve been exposed to and how do they seem similar or different to the narratives of other marginalized identities? You can also take an implicit association test to learn more about your implicit biases.
3.) Educate yourself. Read various literature, like “Blindspot” by Dr. Mahzarin Banaji and Dr. Anthony Greenwald that gives more insight into what biases are, but don’t stop there. Educate yourself on the systemic oppression. Learn about the narratives of oppression and marginalization that certain communities face as a way to stay, how your implicit bias plays a role in perpetuating the oppression they face, and how you can be more cognizant of it in order to mitigate it.
4.) Consistently engage with others beyond the communities you identify with. We must escape from what is comfortable from time to time and find ourselves in conversation with those who don’t identify as we do in order to hear their stories, learn about their struggles, and use that to find ways to alter our behaviors that feed into systemic oppression.
5.) Stick to the facts. More objectivity provides less room for our biased minds to make subjective decisions. This helps to create new systems and institutions that disallow implicit bias to appear.
6.) Stay humble in your interactions with others and recognize that you will make mistakes. Know that awareness and the willingness to learn are the keys to turning those mistakes into lessons learned. Also, know that you can give grace to others and to yourself as we all learn how to mitigate our biases.
Mitigating your implicit biases take time and effort. Do not forget that this is a journey and it’s a journey that all are able to embark on in order to be as objective as possible and avoid using implicit biases to discriminate against others. Take implicit bias into consideration when you're offering to meet up with a colleague for coffee, when your passing by people on the street, when your ordering food from a server, or doing just about anything because implicit bias touches on everything, but we just aren’t able to recognize it; however, when you do, you owe it to yourself and to others to call it out and to finds ways to remove the filter from your eyes, so that you can finally see others for who they are.