Implicit bias explained: What it is and how we combat it

The term implicit bias has been used more prevalently within the past few years, often with a negative connotation, but not many people actually know what the term means. Ryan Wynett, Manager of Implicit Bias Initiatives at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, defines implicit bias as “the attitude or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions, in an unconscious manner.”

One develops implicit bias based on personal experiences, mostly through indirect influences. Approximately 95% of all thinking is unconscious; the word bias itself comes from the French word for “slant,” which means the human brain is constantly taking shortcuts when making decisions or judgements according to National Geographic. “There’s not enough energy in the day to not have bias,” Wynett said in a Milestone interview on Feb. 25. 

Language has a significant effect on implicit bias.

Both pictures above were taken following Hurricane Katrina, yet the language is different when describing a white person and a Black person, which unconsciously teaches one’s brain to associate Black people with looting. “Ideas of race are the hardest to change [because] around the world throughout history, the words black and white have been used to described different things. White is associated with purity and light whereas black is associated with uncertainty and fear. That makes it harder to dissociate from the idea that white is [inherently] good and black is [inherently] bad,” Wynett said.

When addressing implicit bias, people may feel the need to defend themselves because they could see it as an attack on their character. “If they have a limited understanding [of implicit bias], they are more likely to defend themselves,” Wynett said.

Wynett added, “Not a single person of color has told me they don’t see color. White people tell me that every day of the week. To white people, it is a luxury to not see color, [but] everybody has biases.”

During the first 2020 presidential debate, former-president Donald Trump said he pushed to end racial-sensitivity training, a type of implicit bias training, in federal agencies because it taught people the United States was “racist” and taught them to “hate [the] country.” However, the purpose of implicit bias training of any kind is to make people aware of their biases, not question their character. “Mindsets like that foster that this idea is a zero-sum game… It fosters division, and we are not going to begin to heal if we are not open to the possibility that we are not always right… The way we see the world is not the only way the world can be seen,” Wynett said.

Many misconceptions about implicit bias are rooted in the belief that bias makes someone a “bad person,” when in actuality, all people have some type of bias. “The goal, if you care about this stuff is… not to get rid of having this type of bias because a) you can’t [because] they are already built in by age ten and b) our brains have to have bias; our brain is an energy hog,” Wynett said.

With that being said, the inevitability of implicit bias is not an excuse for complacency. According to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, “Unwanted biases can be mitigated…, [and] implicit biases have huge implications [for other people].” Therefore, every individual has an obligation to recognize their own biases and take a step back for a moment. “Three years ago, when I asked a group of students what they learned [during a lesson on implicit bias], a sophomore girl said, ‘While I may be a very accepting person, my brain might not always be…’ The best case scenario [when addressing implicit bias] is that you realize you made a mistake,” Wynett said.

Wynett added, “You have to be thoughtful. If you are not intentional in changing what you want to change, it’s going to be difficult.”

Anyone interested in learning more about their implicit biases can take a Harvard Implicit Bias Test here.

Media courtesy of Ryan Wynett. Thumbnail courtesy of Salud America.


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