The University of Massachusetts Amherst

A Call to Action: Recognizing Implicit Bias and Racism

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The nation is currently honoring Black History Month. Legislation is in place to prevent workplace discrimination, powerful movements are promoting equality, and few individuals openly pronounce themselves to be racist or discriminatory. However, our political rhetoric and polarization, the wage gap, and the treatment of minorities by authorities confirm that injustice still runs rampant. 

While our country has come a long way in rebuking racist views, acts of discrimination occur daily. However, they are not all grand gestures of injustice, they often take the form of subtle prejudices that creep into our decision making. 

While many of us denounce racism and even actively support movements toward equality, these intentions may not be enough to fight a psychological reaction: implicit bias. Implicit bias is the unconscious stereotyping and formation of attitudes toward groups or ideas that can influence our actions. Individuals may fully support equality, but their cognition could be unknowingly persuading them to react differently.

Anthony Greenwald, a leading scholar in implicit bias, created the Implicit Association Test in the mid-1990s to measure people’s initial reactions to differing phrases and pictures to measure the reality of prejudice. The tests compare race, appearance, and gender with stereotypes and favorability.

The study found that people tend to associate men with science, black individuals with negative words, and a preference for thin and straight young people. Although you may promote equality and diversity, most people’s instinctive reactions are riddled with bias. Even though we may not realize it, we could be making subtle choices based on our underlying assumptions: try the test yourself to measure your own bias.

Although this subtle racism may occur infrequently and take form in small ways, the impact can be substantial. If we unconsciously attribute certain qualities to each gender or race, our workplace and social environments suffer. Teachers may unknowingly perceive students to be less intelligent, qualified individuals may not get a second interview, and our conversations can hurt as these snap judgments influence our perceptions.

The impact can range from perceiving cultural cues about how each gender should act to racial judgments that lead to tragedies. Cycles of inequity and social injustice may be perpetuated when individuals are not chosen for a job or don’t receive the same educational opportunities. When implicit bias pervades other aspects of life, like criminal justice, vast communities may suffer more drastically. While some police forces may not consider themselves to be racist, their implicit bias can lead to racist actions, including murder. 

Greenwald often refers to these biases as blind spots; people can’t see their biases and often declare opposing attitudes. However, this is still dangerous. Greenwald’s test results prove the implicit bias typically aligns with historically racist attitudes. Because the prejudice often goes unnoticed, it can be even more alarming and difficult to fight.

While it may be harder to locate, the issue is not hopeless. Because bias is a cognitive issue, you can learn to shift your perception. Once you recognize a pattern, you can acknowledge stereotypical thoughts and work to create new associations. This can be done through connecting to those with different backgrounds and races. Hold yourself accountable when you see an issue or notice unfair preconceptions.

Racism has long been condemned by the majority of the nation, yet the issue still persists. To keep trying to rid discrimination and inequality in social, economic, and familial aspects of life, more conversations need to be had. Fighting implicit bias is a grueling task, but through personal connections, education, and motivated curiosity, strides can be made.