With everything that has been happening in our country lately, I have seen a lot of important discussions on racism and how to combat it. It brings to mind a pattern in our society that you may have seen on the news. I’m talking about instances where white people have called the police on black people doing things that would not typically garner this reaction if the person was white. When video evidence of this comes out, it’s not uncommon for the white person who called the police to issue a statement that includes the phrase “I’m not a racist.”
I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, and when they claim, “I’m not a racist,” I think they very well may believe that to be a true statement. But how do we reconcile what certainly appears to be a racist act (e.g., calling the police on a black person walking their dog) with the personal belief that one is not racist? Enter implicit racism.
Let’s say a white person consciously and honestly believes he or she is not racist. It is still possible that this person holds unconscious belief systems that shape his or her perceptions of another person (i.e., social cognition) without that person even being aware that this is happening. These unconscious social belief systems, which are a form of stereotyping, can be for race or gender or any other form of demographic.
Now you might be asking, “How is this even possible? How can something affect my perceptions that I’m not even aware of?” Implicit racism or bias can happen when a person is exposed to racist messages in their formative years. Close friends or relatives might say things or make certain jokes and if you don’t know any better, you internalize these messages without even thinking. Fast forward to adulthood where you have made the rational and/or moral determination that racism is wrong. Those old associations that were formed in your earlier years are still there, lurking below the surface. Be honest, were you around anyone who was biased or racist when you were little? I know I was, and I’m not alone. Of course, that presence doesn’t guarantee that you or I have implicit racism, but the potential is most certainly there.
Broadly speaking, the way each individual makes sense of the world, correctly or otherwise, is reflected in webs of synaptic connections within their brain. Through our experiences, we come to believe that apples are sweet, for example. The association between apples and sweetness builds through connected synapses, and the stronger the belief, the stronger the connections. Here’s another example, let’s say Judy believes French people are generally rude. If Judy encounters a French person, the concept of rudeness automatically becomes activated a bit in Judy’s brain. If the French person then says something ambiguous that could be taken has either rude or innocuous, Judy is more likely to see it as rude than if it had been said by someone who was not French. Now if Judy is aware of this bias and consciously believes that French people tend to be rude, then this affect is very strong. However, even if Judy is unaware of this underlying belief (an implicit bias), the affect still occurs, albeit more subtly. In the world of HR, implicit bias can harm the employment prospects of people of color, women, and other traditionally disadvantaged groups. This is a critically important issue, as the unemployment rate for African-Americans increased to nearly 17% in May while the rate for whites actually went down in May.
Implicit racism helps explain why people who do not consider themselves to be racist can still sometimes do things that, well, look pretty racist. But therein lies the problem: how do you change implicit racism if the people with it, by definition, don’t even know they have it? Increasing awareness certainly has to be part of the answer. Psychologists have come up with techniques to accurately assess the strength of association between two concepts in the human brain. So if the concept of harmful or criminal behavior is more strongly associated with blacks than with whites, tests can reveal it.
The good news is that if people are made aware of their implicit biases, they can begin to consciously undo those old, negative associations. They can think back to where these beliefs originated and see the error in those messages. They can be more self-vigilant about their own perceptions and responses to people of color. They can ask themselves, “Would I be reacting this way if this person was white?” With an awareness of one’s own implicit bias, steps can also be taken to work around them. Applying this to HR, managers can have names and any other racially identifying information redacted from resumes and applications prior to screening candidates for interviews. I highly recommend doing this.
There is the old story about how orchestras used to be almost exclusively male. How did that change? The selection process changed such that musicians started auditioning behind a curtain, so that only the music came through. Simple, yet effective. Funny thing is, this wasn’t even done to remove gender bias. It was done to eliminate favoritism toward conductors’ own students.
If you want to test your own implicit bias, here is a popular one:
Having implicit bias doesn’t make you a terrible person. Knowing your “blind spots” and taking steps to correct those make you a better person.