Tools to Help You Uncover Implicit Bias — Plus, What That Actually Means
In recent months, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in protests to raise awareness of the Black Lives Matter movement and the oppression caused by police brutality. These public demonstrations are calling on people to take action, not only to honor the memories of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, and countless other African Americans who've died at the hands of the police but to also help upend a world where Black and BIPOC communities continue to suffer unacceptable systemic injustices. (Related: Powerful Moments of Peace, Unity, and Hope from Black Lives Matter Protests)
In addition to protesting, people are signing petitions, donating to organizations that fight against racial injustice, and reaching out to local law enforcement officers and politicians demanding change.
Others have decided to look inward and educate themselves on racism, whether that means listening to podcasts hosted by civil rights activists, reading books about systemic racism, or watching documentaries to learn more about African American history.
As non-BIPOC seek to learn more about the cause, perhaps the most challenging work lies in actively exploring and uncovering our own biases that may continue to negatively impact Black communities on scales small and large. Yes, most people would say they aren't biased toward others. And maybe, in most ways, you really aren't. But the hard — like, really hard-to-swallow — truth is that everyone experiences implicit bias to some degree.
Here's what implicit bias means, its implications in the real world, and how you can gain a better awareness of these unconscious judgments.
What is implicit bias?
"Implicit bias is a learned, unconscious attitude, association, belief, feeling, or stereotype that we have in favor of our in-group and likely against people who have characteristics that differ from ours," explains Suzy Fauria, L.M.S.W., a child therapist and anti-racist educational consultant.
Put another way: Implicit bias essentially boils down to unconscious stereotyping, says Jennifer Keit, an author and human behavioral consultant. "Stereotyping [means] making sense of categories," explains Keit. "We stereotype cars (e.g. sports cars are fast). We stereotype music (e.g. jazz music has a certain sound). We stereotype neighborhoods (e.g. suburbs are better)." And sometimes those unconscious stereotypes are based not just on race, but also religion, gender, sexual orientation, weight, body type, hairstyle, socioeconomic status — the list goes on and on.
These judgments tend to form on an unconscious level in your brain — meaning you have little to no awareness of them — but they can still impact you, and others, in big ways, says Fauria. "The unconscious mind controls so much of our behaviors," she explains.
For example, continues Fauria, if you've learned — through personal experiences, media exposure, and general cultural conditioning throughout your life — that women are caretakers, it may be difficult for you to envision women in leadership positions. Some implicit biases develop to favor men over women, young people over elderly people, white people over BIPOC, "or, if you have learned through the media that Black folks are likely to be strong, your implicit bias may not allow you to associate Black people with physical weakness," explains Fauria. "These biases then have implications in hiring and quality medical care, respectively."
To be clear, implicit biases can be different from your declared, conscious beliefs, notes Fauria. "Our conscious beliefs are ones in which we choose," she explains. "They likely form our personal code of ethics. However, we can possess beliefs and even take actions that are misaligned with our unconscious belief system. For instance, I may be a self-identified feminist, and unconsciously believe that women are inferior to men." (Related: Are We Sexist About Healthy Food?)
Again, these subconscious attitudes are largely shaped by environmental and personal experiences; some research even suggests that 3- to 9-month-old infants can be subject to implicit biases.
As you develop these myriad subconscious beliefs throughout life, they're "cemented in your subconscious mind as either favorable or unfavorable preferences and biases," explains Fauria. "Our unconscious beliefs about people may be hidden deep within us, but our actions often reveal such beliefs."
Implicit Bias and Racism
Implicit bias and racism are certainly related, "but they are not synonymous," says Fauria. "A person can have, and likely has, implicit racial bias, but that does not equate to engagement in discriminatory or prejudicial actions," she explains. "More often, we see implicit racial biases rise to the surface in the form of microaggressions [think: a store-owner follows a BIPOC customer around the store] and stereotypes, which is implicit racism. You can think of implicit bias as the racism catalyst."
Several studies demonstrate how these microaggressions can manifest and impact Black communities in everyday life. For instance, research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology suggests that white people tend to perceive African American faces as more "threatening" compared to white faces with the same facial expressions. In another study published in the Social Science Research Network, researchers found that college professors in the U.S. are "significantly more responsive" to emails from white men than to emails sent by individuals from any other gender or race. Research from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) also suggests that doctors are less likely to recommend pain medication to people of color compared to white people with the same injury. (Related: Women Are Still Judged By Their Weight In the Workplace)
It bears repeating: These are difficult truths to swallow. And yes, they may be, in large part, the result of subconscious thinking versus explicit discrimination, but their consequences are still extremely real. To recognize and understand your own biases is to work toward dismantling stereotypical narratives that have far-reaching ramifications. (Related: How Racism Can Affect Your Mental Health)
Also worth mentioning: The work of recognizing — and, perhaps more importantly, dismantling — implicit biases is not easy. But it's not impossible. Fauria shares four strategies that can help you confront and reduce your own subconscious biases in everyday life:
- Re-association and stereotype replacement. "An individual recognizes that he or she is responding to a situation or person in a stereotypical fashion, then considers the reasons and actively replaces this biased response with an unbiased one. Another way to use this strategy is to reframe negative associations such as, 'Black students are loud and disruptive.' A reframe would be: 'African American students are enthusiastic and energetic.'"
- Refuting and counter-stereotypic imagining. "Once someone recognizes they've stereotyped a person of color, they think of examples that prove the stereotype to be inaccurate."
- Perspective-taking. "[This] involves stepping into the shoes of a stereotyped person. What does it feel like to have your intelligence automatically questioned, or to be trailed by detectives each time you walk into a store? Perspective-taking can be very useful in assessing the emotional impact on individuals who are constantly being stereotyped in negative ways. It is also a way to check one's self if you begin to judge a person of color for reacting a particular way in a stressful situation."
- Increasing opportunities for positive contact. "Actively seek out situations where one is likely to be exposed to positive examples of African Americans, [Latinx individuals], or other people of color. This can involve either being in a very diverse social setting such as going to a farmer's market in a more diverse part of town or seeking out personal contact through shared group activities with a diverse community."
If you're looking for something more hands-on, here are a few online tools to help you uncover your implicit biases and work toward meaningful, long-lasting change.
The Implicit Association Test (IAT)
Created by Harvard University's Project Implicit, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) is designed to measure the strength of your associations between concepts and stereotypes. There are IATs that test you on biases related to weight, gender, disability, race, sexuality, age, and more.
While taking one of these IATs, you'll be asked to categorize words and images that appear on-screen by pressing certain keys on your keyboard. The time it takes for you to respond to the different combinations helps determine the mental associations you make, especially those you're not aware of.
Each test takes about 15 minutes to complete and they are all completely free. You can find Project Implicit's tests here.
Exploring Unconscious Bias with Vernā Myers
In 2014, Vernā Myers, an activist and inclusion strategist, gave a TEDx Talk that tackled the issue of unconscious bias and its role in systemic racism. Now, Myers is the VP of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix, and she's created an online video course to help people better understand implicit bias in the workplace.
The $75 course includes 18 short chapters that define diversity, inclusion, and cultural competence; explain how implicit bias originates in the brain and later impacts the ability to build and retain a diverse, inclusive workplace; and offer strategies to help you check your own biases.
UCLA Equity Diversity & Inclusion's Implicit Bias Video Series
This free resource from the UCLA Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion explores how implicit bias and stereotyping can influence behaviors. It's broken into six short video sessions that cover, among other topics, the differences between implicit and explicit bias, the mental shortcuts we take to navigate the world (plus their real-world consequences), and the countermeasures you can take to redirect your subconscious associations.
Chrissy King's 101 Crash Course On Anti-Racism Practices for Wellness Professionals
Chrissy King, the creator of the #BodyLiberationProject and vice president of the Women's Strength Coalition, recently hosted a webinar for fitness and wellness professionals about how to address bias and racism in the health and wellness space. (Related: Chrissy King's Self-Discovery Story Proves Weight Lifting Can Change Your Life)
In an Instagram post, King admitted that her course does get "uncomfortable" at times. "We are going to be discussing the hard things. Confronting racism is never easy," she wrote. The five-part course examines the roles of implicit bias and racism in the wellness space; teaches you how to hold yourself and others accountable for these biases; provides resources on the intersection of racism and wellness; and shows you how to embody anti-racism practices year-round, not just when it's prominent in the news cycle, according to King's post.
Though King hosted several live sessions of her webinar back in June of 2020, you can still watch a replay of her course here for $149.
Stanford University's "See Bias | Block Bias" Toolkit
The VMware Women's Leadership Innovation Lab at Stanford University is home to a collection of several free "See Bias | Block Bias" tools, including video resources to help you reflect on the many facets of implicit bias in the workplace. Collectively, these resources can teach you how to identify bias, confront these internalized stereotypes, and move forward to create inclusive environments where all people can thrive.