June 24, 2020
America has struggled with race for much of its history, and much of the struggle has been the result of biases, overt and subliminal. For too long all of us have admitted to some degree that we have inbred prejudices, but were unwilling to delve into those biases and know just how deep and broad they are. If you don’t know the problem, you can’t begin to solve it.
These biases are often subconscious and long-standing. People are influenced by their upbringings and those around them, which leads our brains to make certain associations. These factors, along with large scale societal structures, influence a person’s ideas of what is normal, desirable, right vs. wrong, etc.
The experiences we have over a lifetime contribute to these implicit biases. An article by NPR explains it this way: Oftentimes white children grow up in households where they are taught that everyone is equal, but there is never a discussion of racism. This “white silence” may lead to a decreased capacity for those children to recognize the deep inequalities that exist within our society.
Scenarios like this may result in associations that we are not aware of. Hence, these implicit associations are difficult to understand and often uncomfortable to confront. Consequently, we don’t always have control over these biases.
Ohio State University Implicit Bias Research
Ohio State University completed a study of implicit bias and defines it as “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.”
The OSU study explains that people are likely to hold implicit biases favoring their own ingroup, however, it is possible to hold biases against our ingroups as well. In addition, our implicit associations may not align with our declared beliefs or reflect perspectives that we think we agree with and endorse. That is why implicit biases are so challenging to recognize and critical to understand.
Harvard Implicit Association Tests
Recognizing our implicit biases is the first step towards understanding the systemic racism that prevails in America and how we might fit into that equation. Taking the Harvard Implicit Association Tests can reveal implicit biases and help us realize how systemic racism is subtly perpetuated throughout generations.
While these tests generate results that can be uncomfortable, they demonstrate the importance of such assessments and underscore the lack of widespread recognition of these biases. The test on race indicates if Americans have an automatic preference for white people over black people by measuring their response rates when black people are associated with “bad” things and white people with “good” things.
Take the Harvard “Project Implicit” tests here: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/index.jsp
Understanding and Changing Our Biases
It does not mean that we are bad people if our implicit biases do not match our explicit beliefs. But this does give us the chance to recognize how our subconscious mind differs from our conscious one. Once we realize this, we can pay attention to these subconscious beliefs and be aware of them going forward.
The past few weeks have once again highlighted America’s need to address racial biases, deeply and comprehensively — perhaps more forcefully than ever before, and we can only hope with more long-term effect.
This isn’t only the work of “society,” but requires that each individual look at his or her implicit prejudices. The good news is that the OSU report explains that implicit biases are not rigid, but in fact quite malleable. Just like certain associations can be learned, they can also be unlearned. Understanding our minds and working towards subconscious disassociations is the first step towards racial awareness and tolerance that will have a generational reach.
Take an implicit bias test; you’ll be surprised as we all were, but it is the first step in understanding where we all are and just how much we have to do to rebuild the social contract in our country.