Are You Biased?
Discussing race can make us uncomfortable. This, in part, might come from the history of race in our country.
The fact is that the United States was founded upon the idea of white supremacy – the racist belief that white people are superior to people of other races and therefore should be dominant over them. Just take a look at U.S. history and the numerous ways in which white supremacy is woven into the fabric of our flag and the fiber of our society.
This list is not exhaustive, it does not represent how certain European immigrants were treated upon arrival and not seen as white. It does not represent the brutal treatment and attacks on the Indigenous people already living here. However, it does illuminate why we might see each other differently and how we have implicit biases.
My own story
Fast forward to 1997, and I’m sitting in sixth-grade art class taught by Mr. Kempf. It is the end of the class period, and Mr. Kempf is dismissing students early based on their extracurricular activities. Group by group he lets us go: “All the kids in student council you may get up and leave. All the students in Spanish National Honors Society you may get up and leave. All the students in orchestra you may go.”
As I got up and proceeded to walk out, Mr. Kempf said: “Will, what are you doing?” I started to explain, but he interrupted: “Sit down. Black kids aren’t in orchestra.”
In that moment, I was devastated. I turned around and walked back to my desk and quietly cried to myself. Mr. Kempf was 100-percent wrong. I was in orchestra. Not only was Mr. Kempf’s calling me out hurtful, it was hurtful when the violin players walked by me and didn’t say anything, when the viola players walked by me and didn’t say anything and when the cello players walked by me and didn’t say anything.
What I learned in that moment is that assumptions are dangerous. Stereotypes are dangerous. But, when people make assumptions about us, we cannot let that define who we are. We cannot let that define what we are going to do.
Mr. Kempf had no idea that I would go on to become the first chair in the high school orchestra. I would play in the Wisconsin State orchestra and in the Music Makers of Milwaukee. I would be the first chair in the University of Minnesota campus orchestra. And, I would play in New York and New Orleans.
A journey of learning
All of us who are on a journey of learning, we must recognize how assumptions and stereotypes are dangerous. And how it’s imperative not to make your own assumptions: about people’s experiences, about a community’s problems or about the best solutions for that community.
As a first step, it’s important to understand what goes into assumptions and the implicit biases we all have, even those of us with the best of intentions.
What is implicit bias?
Implicit bias refers to the brain’s automatic, instant association of stereotypes or attitudes toward particular groups, often without our conscious awareness. From an early age, we take in information and learn associations about groups of people. We learn stereotypes or biases about race, gender, age and ability, among other characteristics that we are not consciously aware we hold.
Most of the time our unconscious brains dictate much of our decision-making. Our brains use “schemas,” or mental structures to organize information around us. These schemas tell our unconscious brains about what to expect from a variety of experiences and situations, and allow us to act or make judgments without even thinking.
When we hold an implicit bias toward a particular group, it can be activated automatically by a person’s accent, skin color, age, gender or other visible cue. Furthermore, implicit biases are increased in ambiguous or stressful situations, when there is time pressure or with multi-tasking, and when there is lack of clear criteria for decision-making or unfamiliarity with a particular group.
The most common biases are against the elderly, as well as people who are obese or overweight. People also tend to be biased against women and girls, LGBTQ communities and people from another race or ethnicity. Given our country’s long history of racial bias, it also happens that people of color are biased against other people of color.
Effects of implicit bias
Implicit biases affect human behavior throughout society, including classrooms, workplaces, health care, the legal system, … you name it. Numerous studies show how implicit biases limit opportunity. In health care, patients are treated differently based on race, gender, weight, age and income. In the legal system, Black defendants are more likely to be treated harshly in the courtroom than white defendants.
And, in the arts, we see the effects of implicit biases. In the 1970s, the top five orchestras had 5 percent women. So, in the 1980s, they introduced blind auditions and that increased the proportion of women to 10 percent. In the 1990s, they did something even different, they had musicians take off their shoes for auditions and that increased the proportion of women in orchestras to 25 percent because the judges’ biases weren’t activated by the clicking sounds of heels on the stage.
Strategies to reduce bias
We can each work to reduce implicit biases. One of the first steps is awareness. Take the test at projectimplicit.org to learn more about your biases, then practice these three strategies.
1. Individuation – Seek specific information, such as interests, hobbies or favorites, about members of groups different than you. This individuation allows you to recognize people based upon their own personal attributes, rather than stereotypes or unconscious biases you might hold.
2. Perspective-taking – Assume the perspective of a group member toward whom bias exists. In other words, put yourself in their shoes. Perspective-taking increases feelings of closeness to the stigmatized group, which dampen or override automatic group-based evaluations.
3. Counter stereotypic imaging – Consciously contrast negative stereotypes with positive examples. Imagine in vivid details people from other groups doing everyday things like a Muslim family eating dinner. Or, think about what you know about a friend or famous person, and use that to counter stereotypes. This strategy makes positive examples salient and accessible, when challenging biases.
We all share this history that has sown implicit biases. And, at the same time, we all have the capacity to make change – within ourselves, at our workplaces and in our communities.