There's a word for why we're all probably at least a little bit racist, even if we really don't want to be: Implicit bias. It's a term that describes what's happening when, despite our best intentions and without our awareness, racial stereotypes and assumptions creep into our minds and affect our day to day functioning.
It seeps into just about every aspect of life, including areas like criminal justice that can have deadly consequences. Thirty years of research in neurology and cognitive psychology studies show that it influences the way we see and treat others, even when we're absolutely determined to be, and believe we are being, fair and objective.
Here's what you need to know about how it works, how it permeates American life.
What is implicit bias?
The first step in understanding how implicit racial bias works is to understand the general concept of implicit bias, which can shape the way we think about lots of different qualities: age, gender, nationality, even height.
You can think of it generally as "thoughts about people you didn't know you had."
How does implicit bias shape behavior? Well, if you have a stereotype about Asian people that labels them as "foreign," implicit bias means you might have trouble associating even Asian-American people with speaking fluent English or being American citizens or owning a home in a certain neighborhood. If you've picked up on cultural cues that women are homemakers, it means you might have a harder time connecting women to powerful roles in business or to being the primary decision maker, despite your conscious belief in gender equality.
Since our thoughts often determine our actions, implicit bias can lead to discriminatory behaviors. Implicit bias lives deep in your subconscious, and it is largely separate from the biases that you know you have.
How does implicit racial bias affect the way we think about race?Implicit bias comes from the messages, attitudes, and stereotypes we pick up from the world we live in, and research over time and from different countries shows that it tends to line up with general social hierarchies.
Studies have shown that people have implicit biases that favor Germans over Turks (in Germany), Japanese over Koreans (in Japan), men over women (when it comes to career-related stereotypes), youth over elderly, and straight people over gay people.
So it's no surprise race is a prime area for implicit bias, and if you live in America, you can probably make an educated guess about some of the ways it tends to play out.
How is this related to regular old racism?Implicit racial bias tends to work against the same groups that are the victims of the type of overt racism. It can also affect the minds of people who would say — honestly — that they are horrified by these types of attitudes. That's because the implicit associations we hold often don't align with our declared beliefs.
How do you figure out whether you have implicit racial bias?To evaluate implicit bias, scientists mostly use tests that measure reaction time and rely on the idea that if we closely associate two concepts in our minds, they'll be easy for us to sort together. And if we don't associate them, they'll be harder, and take more time, to sort together. The most popular test is basically a video game that you play on a computer, the object of which is to sort categories of pictures and words. To access the tests, follow the source information at the end of this article.
What are the main areas in which implicit racial bias affects our everyday lives?Implicit biases are pervasive. Researchers say everyone possesses them, even people like judges, who have avowed commitments to impartiality. Implicit Bias has been connected to housing discrimination, criminal justice and perceptions of neighborhood crime as well as health care, hiring and performance evaluations.
Can you get rid of implicit racial bias?The good news is that there is some evidence that implicit biases, including implicit racial biases, are malleable.
Several different approaches have shown promise for getting rid of implicit bias, generally, which all apply to implicit racial bias, too.
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