Implicit Bias

I have awakened to a new reality. If a year ago I was asked if I harbored a bias, perhaps related to gender or race, I would readily have answered “of course not”. Now I know better, and am wiser.

People in the know, academic researchers in the main, are bringing light to the subject of implicit or unconscious bias, suggesting that we carry, act on, but fail to recognize many biases.

Tests, based on studies with results that have been scrutinized and deemed reliable, (these which I cite developed at Harvard) are available for all at Implicit Association Tests .

An interesting twist: many women, even those who consider themselves feminists, are discovering an unconscious bias against women, and blacks, even civil rights activists, are discovering a bias against blacks. What this makes so clear is how our biases are formed by exposure to values and prejudices in our environment and culture, beginning in childhood. If we grow up in a climate pervaded by negative or stereotypical representations of black people, women, and homosexuals, and which of us has not, our implicit or unconscious attitudes are formed and, though often unrecognized, do influence our day to day actions.

Here is what I found to be a startling example, and a brave admission, that came to light when in 2014, the esteemed journalist Krista Tippett, interviewed Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa:

Desmond Tutu: “I think… that we have very gravely underestimated the damage that apartheid inflicted on all of us. You know, the damage to our psyches, the damage that has made — I mean, it shocked me. I went to Nigeria when I was working for the World Council of Churches, and I was due to fly to Jos. And so I go to Lagos airport and I get onto the plane and the two pilots in the cockpit are both black. And whee, I just grew inches. You know, it was fantastic because we had been told that blacks can’t do this.

…And we have a smooth takeoff and then we hit the mother and father of turbulence. I mean, it was quite awful, scary. Do you know, I can’t believe it but the first thought that came to my mind was, “Hey, there’s no white men in that cockpit. Are those blacks going to be able to make it?”

And of course, they obviously made it — here I am. But the thing is, I had not known that I was damaged to the extent of thinking that somehow actually what those white people who had kept drumming into us in South Africa about our being inferior, about our being incapable, it had lodged some way in me.”

How can we not only unearth the discomforts we would all likely experience as our unconscious biases become known to us, but get beyond them? That becomes the real challenge.