The Illicit Nature of Implicit Bias

“If you track mud on someone’s carpet, they don’t care about your intent, they look at the consequence … And chances are, you won’t be invited back.”

This metaphor—shared by first Monday speaker, artist, and activist Gregg Deal—sums up the problem with implicit bias that has plagued me since I first heard the term. An implicit act is no less consequential than an explicit one. Michael Brown is no less dead than he would be if the police officer who shot him had planned it ahead of time. Schools are no less segregated today than they were in the early 1900s, Brown v. Board of Education notwithstanding.

Cartoon by Lo Wall

Last week’s hateful email should not serve to make anyone feel “less racist” in comparison. Nor should we focus our attention on condemning the perpetrator. It should serve as an opportunity for our school’s many communities to connect, support each other, support the faculty members affected, and then move on—not in spite of the email but because creating inclusivity on Colorado College’s campus was as important beforehand as it is now.

We need to create an action-oriented discussion surrounding implicit bias. The question is not “do I have implicit bias?” because we know the answer to that, and it is “yes, unequivocally,”. It’s not, “how can I understand my implicit bias?” or even, “what are the consequences of institutionalized implicit bias?” These questions may be important, but for many they remain comfortably impersonal, even while intellectually stimulating—and the nature of implicit bias is such that it is always personal.

White students like myself can say we would never have shot Michael Brown, but we can’t know. If we can’t know, we can’t say that “understanding our implicit bias” frees us or others around us from its impact. If we can’t know, we are guilty until proven innocent.

There is no magic bullet for addressing implicit bias. That much is clear not only to researchers, but to anyone living in today’s world. That said, many have spent their careers and lives looking for ways to tangibly address implicit bias, specifically implicit racism. For example, psychological research has shown that thinking of counter-stereotypical examples and considering the perspective of marginalized groups can reduce implicit bias in experimental settings in the short term, this suggests that distance is toxic and nearness is its counter.

Some researchers consider implicit bias a mechanism similar to “habit of prejudice,” arguing that it more accurately describes the processes of learning that create bias. If bias is a habit, then it can and must be broken with the same methodological intentionality as any other habit. Some police districts have mandated “implicit bias training” for police officers. A church in California started an implicit bias reform group not unlike Alcoholics Anonymous.

I usually try to end criticisms with some policy suggestions, or potential solutions, but here I won’t. I don’t know enough about what has worked in addressing implicit bias and what hasn’t. I don’t know how to possibly translate the results of psychological research into real change in a dynamic community like the one at CC. But  I know we need to go beyond understanding implicit bias to changing it—because isn’t that transformation the point of education in the first place?

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