Implicit Bias

I had the opportunity today to learn from two impressive Tufts faculty members, Keith Maddox and Sam Sommers. Both social psychologists, Maddox and Sommers specialize in issues of implicit bias, stereotyping, and group interactions.

If you’ve never done it before, I highly encourage you to visit Harvard’s Project Implicit to take an implicit bias test. Through a series of categorizing tasks, the test will show you what biases you have on a number of topics such as race, gender, and sexuality.

I say, “what biases you have” rather than “whether you have biases,” because, unless you are dead, you will have biases.

People need to use short cuts, heuristics, in order to make sense of the complex stimuli we are constantly inundated with. This is a helpful, and often good mechanism. If we could only ever work from complete information, we’d find ourselves practically paralyzed by the enormity of information flooding our way. We literally could not function without these heuristics.

But these snap judgements can also be dangerous. Studies have shown, for example, that we typically form opinions within seconds of meeting someone, and those impressions tend to vary little after being formed.

That might not be a problem if our first impressions were always surprisingly accurate, but in a society with deep preferences favoring people who look a certain way or act a certain way, our heuristic judgements devolve into damaging stereotypes.

So, what is a person to do?

We can’t – and shouldn’t want to – cleanse our minds of all heuristic processes. But neither can we rely on our mental shortcuts to always present us with accurate, unbiased information.

Well, first, you should take the tests. Find out what biases you have. It will be hard. You may not like the results. After all, three quarter of white people and half of black people show a bias favoring Whiteness.

And if you are not biased on that, you are likely biased on something else. But have no doubts that you are biased.

Of course, knowing is half the battle, so get to know what biases you have. Face them. Accept them. The reality is your brain does things that you have little control over, and while we might wish it didn’t…ignoring our biases won’t make them go away.

So recognize your biases and commit to questioning your actions accordingly. Notice when your bias jumps in and push yourself to question your judgements, assumptions, opinions and the actions which flow from those views.

Never settle with the answer that it’s okay, “in this case.” Your brain will always come up with extenuation circumstances to explain why your bias is okay.

This is a critical first step, but in my view it is still not enough. Privilege and power are deeply ingrained to the benefit of some and the determinant of others. Overcoming bias is more than learning not to judge someone by the color of their skin – it is learning to accept them for who they are. It is understanding and expressing that the White way is not intrinsically the right way.

There is no gold star for the 25% of white people who don’t favor Whiteness. There is no person who doesn’t need to be concerned about implicit bias or the very real ways it skews and damages our society.

We are all us members of this society and we each have an obligation to work every day at uncovering our own biases undoing the harm that has haunted us for generations.


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