Implicit bias, also known as unconscious bias, refers to those unconscious attitudes, reactions, stereotypes, and categories toward other individuals or groups based on their identity, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic level, or physical disability. These assumptions affect behavior and understanding, and are particularly damaging in higher education, as faculty may make assumptions about students’ academic capabilities, which often impede a student’s potential for academic success (Staats et al.).
One of the biggest obstacles to dismantling implicit bias is awareness of the deep-seated associations many of us have about certain groups. For example, we may have been socialized to believe that students from marginalized groups struggle academically, so that when we have a student from that group, we may unconsciously uphold that association/stereotype (Devine et al..).
As calls for anti-racist pedagogies and inclusiveness continue to rise to combat discrimination, we are becoming more aware that we all have biases and recognize the importance of reducing them. Several tests exist to measure biases, for example, Harvard University’s free Implicit Association Test (IAT) that can assess an individual’s preference for one group over another. Unfortunately, awareness is but a meager first step. And, while a number of “easy to implement” strategies have been identified (such as imagining yourself with the perspective of a marginalized other or imagining counter-stereotype others) social psychologists, such as Patricia Devine et al., argue that long-term change is not possible without willingness and a commitment to change.
Devine, Patricia G. et al., “Long-Term Reduction in Implicit Race Bias: A Prejudice Habit-Breaking Intervention.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 48, no. 6, Nov. 2012, pp. 1267-1278, 2012.
Staats, Cheryl et. al. State of the Science:Implicit Bias Review. 17th ed., The Ohio State University Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, 2017. http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/2017-SOTS-final-draft-02.pdf
"Take a Test." Project Implicit. https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html
Phillips, Jennifer Akamine, et. al. “Barriers and Strategies by White Faculty Who Incorporate Anti-Racist Pedagogy.” Race & Pedagogy Journal: Teaching and Learning for Justice, vol. 3, no. 2, 2019, pp. 1-27, 2019.
The article provides the original definitions for the terms anti-racist, Critical White Studies (CWS) and Critical Race Studies (CRS) necessary to understand the problem white educators face in incorporating anti-racist pedagogy into the classroom.
Anti-racist: from Dei (1996): an “action-oriented strategy for institutional systemic change that addresses racism and other interlocking systems of social oppression. Anti-racism explicitly names the issues of race and social differences as issues of power and equity, rather than as matters of culture and ethnic variety” (252).
Critical White Studies: the study and critique of how power and privilege associated with White normativity as it permeates institutions of higher learning, aimed at exposing invisible structures and systems that perpetuate and possibly continue to strengthen White privilege (Applebaum in Phillips et al. 2).
Critical Race Theory: from Delgado and Stefanic (2012): “a movement that seeks to reveal how White supremacy has established and perpetuated the oppression of people of color.”
The authors use whiteness as a critical lens to understand and begin to dismantle white privilege. It is important to recognize that privilege always comes at the expense of someone else; in other words, another group will be oppressed. The research question this study undertook was, “What are the experiences of White college and university faculty in the United States who navigate intuitional and internalized barriers as they engage in anti-racist educational practices?”
The first step in ensuring anti-racism in pedagogy and in the classroom is acknowledging its presence; however, that is not enough. Action must be taken to dismantle racism. Educators must be purposefully anti-racist in both their pedagogy and scholarship. As hard as they may try and as strong the desire, White individuals can never completely disassociate themselves from their “identity of privilege” in part because they benefit from it every day (often without recognizing that fact). In spite of this rather hopeless thought, this study proposes that one can still learn to oppose their privilege. Part of learning how to oppose the privilege lies in the ability to more fully embrace and understand what it means to be White, which will lead to more effective work in racial justice. One can begin to do this through active allyship with people of color. Anti-racist ally is defined in this study as “a member of a dominant culture who is working to end the systemic privilege they benefit from as the dominant culture” (7).
The study used narrative inquiry, or participant-led autobiographical life stories, which allows for individuals to reflect on critical moments in their lives and for their stories to emerge and evolve. These stories then allowed for researchers to identify and analyze inherent biases and beliefs.
Barriers faced by White anti-racist faculty in academia:
• Lack of commitment from their institutions toward anti-racism policies, practices, and pedagogy.
• This lack of commitment resulted in systemic challenges to tenure and scholarship.
• Internalized struggles with their White racial identity as a barrier to allyship.
• Embrace critical pedagogy and encourage faculty to educate themselves on the history of treatment of African Americans, indigenous people, Asians, and other groups.
• Co-construct knowledge with students by sharing our stories of being racist or ablest or classist, even if unintentional, which invites students to feel more comfortable with engaging in these conversations in the classroom. Be vulnerable with students; take risks.
• Recognize White privilege. And white male privilege as professors—they are not confronted as much by students or other faculty.
• Watch out for and avoid racist ally “performance,” which means talking about the work rather than doing racial justice work. “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do” (James Baldwin). Need to be careful not to put yourself in a patronizing position of the “White savior.”
• Take greater risks in the classroom—more autonomy than they realize (it’s in faculty meetings, public settings, panels, etc. that may get them in trouble).
To address the challenges more fully, Phillips et al. propose an emerging model, the Inclusive Estuary of Learning, which consists of a utilization of critical pedagogy; an awareness, especially for White instructors, of whiteness and privilege and the implications in the classroom and pedagogy. They call for creating an “estuary,” in which co-construction of knowledge is supported. (Estuaries are places where sea water and freshwater mix, forming a unique and complex environment where living animals from disparate environments must learn to adapt in order to survive). In the classroom, instructors, as well as students must learn to adapt to the “estuary” that is the classroom in order to thrive. The study implores the necessity of intentional intermingling of and collective efforts of faculty, staff, administration, and students, the foundational elements for an “Inclusive Estuary of Learning.
Devine, Patricia G., et. al. “Long-Term Reduction in Implicit Race Bias: A Prejudice Habit-Breaking Intervention." Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 48, no. 6, Nov. 2012, pp. 1267-1278, 2012.
The authors base their study on the premise that implicit bias is like a habit and, as such, can be broken through a combination of an awareness of implicit bias, concerns about the effects of the bias, and application of strategies to reduce the bias. They propose a multi-faceted prejudice habit-breaking intervention to produce long-term reductions in implicit race bias. They argue that breaking the habit requires learning to recognize the situations that activate the bias and strategies of replacing the biased responses with responses that reflect one’s nonprejudiced goals.
Their 12-week controlled study showed a reduction in implicit race bias that endured for at least 2 months.
While trends show that racial prejudice in the U.S. has declined in the last 50 years, evidence to the contrary exists. The paradox of persistent racial inequalities despite improving racial attitudes has led researchers to suggest that implicit race biases are responsible for the persistent discrimination. Implicit racial biases are automatically activated and are often unintentional, and it is often this unawareness that causes them to occur. This link between implicit bias and continued discrimination has led to a call for strategies to reduce these biases and have resulted in several “easy-to-implement” strategies, such as taking the perspective of the othered group and imaging counter-stereotypic examples. The problem with these strategies is that they are contextual (implemented at the suggestion/behest of someone else) and don’t last long-term. The implicit system only changes for the long-term through considerable time and effort and/or an intense experience.
The prejudice habit-breaking model, described by Devine and others, claims that motivation to break the prejudice habit arises from two sources: people must first be aware of their biases and then must be concerned enough about the consequences of their biases to make the effort to change them. They also must be able to identify situations that trigger bias responses and how to replace the biased responses with responses aimed at their goals.
Their study measured implicit bias by using the Black-White Implicit Association Test (IAT), the Attitudes Toward Blacks scale, and the discrepancy scale (measures the extent to which people predict they would act with more prejudice than they believe appropriate). During the training, participants were given five strategies taken from the literature and adapted for the intervention. Each strategy requires effort, and each is mutually reinforcing. The program emphasized that practicing the strategies would help them reduce implicit bias and break the prejudice habit.
The five strategies are
1. Stereotype replacement: involves recognizing that a response is based on a stereotype,
labeling the response as such, and reflecting on why the response occurred and how the response could be avoided and/or replaced.
2. Counter-stereotypic imaging: involves imagining in detail stereotypical others, either
abstract (e.g., smart Black people), famous (e.g., Barack Obama), or non-famous (e.g., a personal friend), which makes positive associations more accessible.
3. Individuation: aimed at preventing stereotypic inferences by learning specific information
about individual members of the group, which also helps to evaluate on personal attributes.
4. Perspective taking: involves taking the perspective in the 1st person of a member of a
stereotypic group, which increases psychological closeness and decreases group-based evaluations.
5. Increasing opportunities for contact: involves actively seeking opportunities to encounter and engage in positive ways with members of the othered groups, which can lessen implicit bias by changing group representations or directly improving evaluations of the group.
Their study showed a decrease in implicit race bias that lasted at least 2 months, demonstrating the power of the conscious mind to intentionally use strategies to overcome implicit racial bias. Use of such programs could effectively reduce race-based discrimination.
Boyson, Guy A., and David Vogel. “Bias in the Classroom: Types, Frequencies, and Responses.” Teaching of Psychology, vol. 36, no. 1, Jan. 2009, pp. 12-17.
This study focuses on incidents of bias in the college classroom from the perspective of professors. A survey of over 300 professors at primarily white institutions, the study assessed the types of bias professors perceived in the classroom, their responses to the bias, and their perceived success of their responses. The study was conducted to compile information that previously had been missing from the literature and to understand why (based on evidence) that most bias occurs within the classroom, putting the responsibility for dealing with the bias on the shoulders of the professor. Literature exists on the topic of teaching diversity but is lacking on the specifics of classroom management of bias such as use of “pejorative terms” and “inflammatory language” (13).
Boyson and Vogel categorized the results of their survey into types of microaggressions: microinsults (assumptions about intelligence or ability), microassaults (verbal derogation of a specific group), microinvalidations (characterizing minorities as foreigners, professing colorblindness, claiming bias doesn’t play a part in discrimination, and denying personal bias). An additional category was disrespect, which included belittling an individual without necessarily addressing their personal characteristics. Interestingly, this last category of comments was almost always directed at faculty, primarily by refusing to accept the professor’s authority regarding biased behavior.
Instances of explicit (27%) and implicit (30%) bias were nearly equally noted by participants. The study found that 27% of participants recorded explicit bias. The most common form (47% of all cases) was stereotyping. Next was offensive jokes or humor (20%), followed by avoidance or isolation (12%), slurs (9%), insults (9%), and other (3%). The most targets of bias were sexual orientation (20%), race (19%), then sex (16%), ethnicity (15%), religion (13%), class (10%), and disability (3%).
Positive results of the study conclude that few professors ignore demonstrations of bias in their classrooms and take action to counter it. However, since implicit bias is more difficult to detect, incidences of it may go unnoticed.
The authors suggest that a form of follow-up to actions they have taken to address incidences of bias as a way to emphasize the importance to students, to document effective strategies, and to share those strategies with other faculty.
Samuel, Edith. “Racism in Peer-Group Interactions: South Asian Students’ Experiences in Canadian Academe.” Journal of College Student Development, vol. 45, no. 4, Jul. 2004, pp. 407-424.
The study aimed to examine the ways that racism exerts itself toward South Asian students in the university through peer-group interactions. Samuel interviewed 40 South Asian students in predominantly White Canadian universities. Overt racism toward minority students results in reported feelings of isolation, alienation, segregation, and stress. Every one of the 40 participants claimed to have experienced racism in one or more of the following categories: doubts about status and abilities; minimization, silencing, exclusion, and segregation; being the “only one” and expected to speak for “their group”; feelings of invisibility; and extracurricular and residence experiences (412).
Most students interviewed noted they were able to continue their academic programs; however, the persistent, everyday racism affected the overall climate on campus for minority students. Interviewees made the following recommendations to overcome the negative effects of the racism: admit more minority students into small-town universities; universities should organize and promote cross-cultural activities; allocate more publicity, funding, and space for activities of ethnic associations; ethnic associations should work together for unity and solidarity; more representation of minorities in campus publications; and universities should provide more trained cross-cultural counselors of various ethnic backgrounds on campus.
Wilson, Erika, N. “Why Diversity Fails: Social Dominance Theory and the Entrenchment of Racial Inequality.” National Black Law Journal, vol. 26, no. 1, 2017. pp. 129-153.
The authors examine the paradox between widespread rhetoric extolling asserting the importance of diversity against the reality of little meaningful diversity in many American institutions, especially elite institutions. The study focuses primarily on the lack of diversity in elite law firms, but is applicable to many other environments, including the university.
A common and “easy” answer to explain the paradox is what is known as the “pipeline problem,” meaning there are not enough diverse candidates who would also meet the qualifications for entrance into the elite institutions. This argument is often used to justify limited diversity. Recent research, however, questions the validity of the pipeline problem, as it fails to account for real biases that play a role in the lack of diversity. An alternative explanation is that of implicit bias, which suggests that unconscious stereotypes or “shortcuts embedded in the human mind related to characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and even appearance, cause individuals to evaluate some groups more harshly and disparately than other groups” (133).
Wilson adds that while it is important to recognize the role that implicit bias plays in hindering diversity, it is not the complete answer. Focusing only on implicit bias, she argues, dilutes the complexity of racial exclusion today, specifically, the systemic oppression by a dominant group.
Acknowledging the paradox of admitted desire for diversity in elite institutions and the reality of the lack therein, Wilson calls for additional theories that may account for the story. One of these theories may be
To more fully examine reasons for limited diversity, Wilson suggests turning to theoretical lenses, particularly the Social Dominance Theory (SDT), that can offer better insight into the systemic bias and exclusion in the U.S. by examining group-based hierarchies. The theory contends that “groups are constructed along the lines of ... age, gender, and arbitrary socially constructed characteristics
(race, ethnicity, or class)” (134), inevitably resulting in the creation of dominant and subordinate groups.
The greatest benefit of SDT, Wilson claims, is that it helps to understand how group-based hierarchies can be reinforced by perpetuating the myths that help protect the status quo (i.e., “pipeline problem”), which continues to reinforce exclusion of racial minorities.
To more fully explain how implicit bias plays a role, Wilson cites the work of Jerry Kang, noted for his work on implicit bias primarily in law firms. He describes the ways that “race alters interpersonal reactions” (qtd. in Wilson 144). He notes that when individuals are shown images that trigger conception of a specific race, they are likely to “categorize the image as belonging to that racial category, and to assign to that image the characteristics the brain already has associated with the category” (qtd. in Wilson 144). This unconscious categorization (or implicit bias) can be especially harmful to African American because of unconscious associations with African Americans, such as criminal activity.
Although race is the primary determinant of limited diversity in elite law firms, research has shown that these same firms prefer to hire males from predominantly wealthy families, which could further preclude racial minorities from being hired by these firms. Firms showed implicit bias toward wealthy women, in assuming they would be less committed to the job.