Understanding Implicit Bias

Consider this unsettling statement: “According to research, most white Americans demonstrate bias against blacks, even if they’re not aware of or able to control it.”

Research demonstrates that many of us have internalized racial biases we may not even be aware of.


This information comes from Harvard research on people’s underlying beliefs and attitudes about people based on their race. The Implicit Association Test (IAT) was developed by researchers there to assess the race or gender-based associations that we all harbor about other people that we may be either unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge.

How does this test work? People are asked to make associations between concepts, (for example: black people, gay people, etc.) and evaluations (such as good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g. angry, athletic). The test measures not only how a response is made, but also how quickly the response is made. The theory behind this is that even when we don’t want to believe a deeply held stereotype, if it is an automatically ingrained attitude or way of thinking, it will take longer for us to sort through our thinking to make an association or match.

(Click here to take the test.)

How Implicit Bias Plays out in the Classroom

I have seen this play out in my own life. As an undergraduate at an “elite” private university, I took a class in “Activism in the Arts” where we explored ways to use theater and performance art to address social justice issues. Even though my classmates and teachers identified themselves as liberal, I sensed a growing discomfort at discussing race. I remember a specific incident where I brought up my perspectives as a person of color and a classmate responded, “I’m not here to talk about black issues, I’m here to help the homeless.” I was shocked.

As the class went on and I continued to express my very different perspective I began to see a connection between my being the “only black student in class” and their need to dismiss the ideas I presented.

For our final project, we were given the task of creating a performance to synthesize all we had learned. I proposed exploring the intersection of race and gender. For example: Why were black women supposed to be angry, yet Asian women were considered submissive? I thought my topic would only interest one or two students. To my surprise, several other women joined my group.

Nonetheless, as my peers and I discussed ideas for our presentation and shared experiences of discrimination, my classmates grew more and more uncomfortable discussing race. I believe the fact that they were all white made them uncomfortable exploring their own privilege and internalized racism. As they did not have any “victim” narratives to share related to race, they instead chose to explore incidents of harassment and discrimination they had experienced as women. In effect, it became a white feminist project.

No matter how much I tried to bring the topic back to my original proposal to include race and gender discrimination, my peers resisted. Ultimately, I went to the teachers for help. To my surprise, I was asked to leave the class. The cited the fact that my comments were making other students uncomfortable. “You’re making other students cry,” they said, and suggested it might be better for me to finish out the class as an intern at a black theater company. (!)

Though I stuck out the class to the bitter end (because I am not a quitter!), this and other experiences made it very difficult for me to complete my college education. In fact, I almost didn’t graduate. Even though I did well academically in most of my classes, and had great relationships with most of my professors, my interactions with other students made it difficult for me to bring my whole self to my work on any group project or class discussion. Because my peers had experienced little exposure to any disenfranchised groups (be they people of color, immigrants, working-class, gay, etc.) I often heard my peers make well-intentioned yet deeply painful comments. When this happened, I struggled with how to address it and often experienced social repercussions when I did. “I’m not a racist!” my peers would reply. “You’re too sensitive!” or “Can’t you take a joke?”. “Why are you so angry all the time?” … (At 21, and as light-skinned as an African-American can be, I felt I had already been pigeon-holed as the “angry-black militant of the class.” It was ridiculous!)

Ultimately, where I had supportive teachers or peers, I did OK. Unfortunately, many of my professors were as unaware of how to handle “diversity issues” as my peers. In these cases, I felt angry, frustrated and alone.

How Pervasive Is Implicit Bias?

Data from the IAT shows that my experience, and the experience of many black Americans is not an anomaly. The graphic below provides a geographic representation of implicit bias across the United States. The map below shows how respondents to the test fared in terms of bias by state. (The scale at the top uses blue at the left to represent less bias, while the red represents more bias.)

Please be advised, this is NOT a random sampling of all Americans. It only represents those who took the test. It would be fair to say anyone holding explicitly biased (e.g. outright racists) wouldn’t even think to take the test, and thus might not be represented in this data. Based on these results, if we truly want to eradicate racial injustice in our country, we definitely have our work cut out for us!

The Implications of Implicit Bias on Police Violence

Outside of the classroom, implicit racism plays out in equally destructive ways. Implicit racism affects who gets served first at the lunch counter, who gets hired for a job and who gets suspended from class. Implicit bias can also prove lethal. In an article by Chris Mooney of the Washington Post, he shares how unconscious internalized beliefs might lead to the events that surrounding police shootings of unarmed blacks such as Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Michael Brown.

Across America, Whites are Biased and They Don’t Even Know It by Chris Mooney (Washington Post 12/8/2014)

“It’s a surprisingly little-discussed factor in the anguishing debates over race and law enforcement that followed the shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers. Such implicit biases — which, if they were to influence split-second law enforcement decisions, could have life or death consequences — are measured by psychological tests, most prominently the computerized Implicit Association Test, which has been taken by over two million people online at the website Project Implicit.”

Read more here.

Where Do We Go from Here?

In future posts, I’ll be tackling the topic of what to do about all this. In the meantime, you can learn more about Implicit Bias by reading this great article by VOX. Or, if you’re feeling courageous, you can take the Implicit Association Test (IAT) here. If you do, please let me know your thoughts in the comments below

What are your thoughts on all this? How do you think implicit bias plays today in our communities and nation at large? What connection do you see in your personal life, in the media or in current events?

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One thought on “Understanding Implicit Bias

  1. Other research explored the connection between criminal sentencing and Afrocentric features bias, which refers to the generally negative judgments and beliefs that many people hold regarding individuals who possess Afrocentric features such as dark skin, a wide nose, and full lips.  Researchers found that when controlling for numerous factors (e.g., seriousness of the primary offense, number of prior offenses, etc.), individuals with the most prominent Afrocentric features received longer sentences than their less Afrocentrically featured counterparts. As the Kirwan Institute works to create a just and inclusive society where all people and communities have opportunity to succeed, we have become increasingly mindful of how race and cognition factors such as implicit bias can operate in conjunction with structural racialization.  Together these two powerful forces create barriers that impede access to opportunity across many critical life domains such as housing, education, health, and criminal justice.

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