Implicit Bias Training Reduces Racism

Samuel DuBose. Sandra Bland. Christian Taylor. If these names are not familiar to you, they should be. They are just three of the estimated 60 Black people who are now dead at the hands of police just since I wrote my blog post on police violence (for a truly horrific recounting of all those killed by police, visit The Counted). And that’s only looking at law enforcement!

This summer also saw nine Black church goers shot by a white kid in South Carolina, a virulent debate Photo by Stephen Depolo: the Confederate flag, numerous Black Lives Matter protests, continuing discussions of the riots in Baltimore and Ferguson, and a host of other events that sparked debates over racism. If all of this doesn’t lead people to conclude that racism exists, I don’t know what will. Seriously, people: the time for deliberation is over. There is racism, so now we must focus on solutions.

This will not be easy. The solutions will be many and varied, impacting most if not all of our major institutions and examining things like poverty, jobs, and urban planning to see what needs to be fixed. Those will be tough challenges but there is something else that we can do and that something is implicit bias training.

Implicit bias is the prejudice in judgment and/or behavior that comes from unconscious thought processes. We think or act upon beliefs we may not even know we’ve learned. We all have these implicit biases and they affect the way people behave in everything from medical treatment and hiring decisions to court sentencing and the lethality of police interactions. So, they matter quite a bit. However, having bias doesn’t mean that we’re horrible people. All it means is that we hold stereotypes but the good news is that if we wish to overcome these misconceptions, we can.

Implicit bias training is one terrific way to change these thoughts and it has been used to great effect with police departments and courts. But why stop there? If we really want to transform our society into a land of true equality, we have to go deeper. We must implement implicit bias training earlier and more often. It needs to be in schools and not just in younger grades but throughout people’s entire academic journey. It also should be required training for government workers (I’m looking at you, Congress!), businesses, healthcare, journalism, and entertainment.

And while it may sound scary, it really isn’t. Implicit bias training is based on a few principles which, at their core, seek to raise awareness of implicit bias. Below are six basic goals for training.

  1. Individuate

Human beings take a lot of cognitive shortcuts (we’re lazy thinkers). It saves time to evaluate people based on their group status but it also leads to bias because you see the group instead of the person. Thus, people might assume Rong is good at math simply because she is Asian or that Jamal is an excellent basketball player because he is Black. However, if we focus on how people perform individually, we may avoid that trap.

  1. Acknowledge real group and individual differences

On The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert often said, “I don’t see race.” This was funny because “color blindness” is supposed to be good but, in actuality, isn’t. Group differences in history, values, and other dynamics do exist and they frequently influence people’s behavior. For example, based on how law enforcement has historically treated Black people, they as a group understandably can be wary of and hostile towards the police. Ignoring such a group difference can lead to misunderstanding. Thus, being aware of and sensitive to group differences is the more effective strategy.

  1. Check thought processes and decisions for possible bias

This is a big one because people frequently “speak their minds” without taking much stock in whether their thoughts have been influenced by bias. I’m sure we can all list numerous examples of late (Donald Trump perhaps?), so this strategy encourages people to articulate their reasoning process and not merely rely upon intuition. In other words, everyone should be thoughtful and try to take the perspective of someone else before reaching a conclusion. Just imagine how such a strategy would change our political process!

  1. Avoid distractions and stress in decision-making

Whenever people are distracted or stressed, we tend to ignore empirical evidence and instead rely more upon our gut (Iraq war, anyone?). These intuitive decisions are more likely to lead to bias than rational ones. To prevent this sort of mistake, we need to remove or reduce obstacles to good decision-making. Some ways of doing this include meditation (clearing your mind) or focusing on the task at hand.

  1. Institute feedback mechanisms

When making major decisions, getting advice on how you’re doing and what can be improved is a good idea. This is known as egalitarian consensus, a method for giving everyone a voice in making agreements. Police departments have implemented this by soliciting responses from the community as well as from government officials and police officers themselves. President John F. Kennedy did this during the Cuban Missile Crisis when he requested honest feedback from everyone in the room. This gives everyone a say and includes perspectives that might otherwise be ignored. Make no mistake, consensus isn’t an easy process but it is a necessary one.

  1. Increase exposure to stigmatized group members and counter-stereotypes

In a country that is frequently segregated by race and class, this is an extremely necessary strategy because if you reduce people’s exposure to stereotypes, they can “unlearn” the associations beneath implicit bias. For training purposes, exposure can be anything from imagining or observing counter-stereotypes (people acting against expectations) to engaging with counter-stereotypic role models or practicing counter-stereotypic associations.

So, that’s it. Implicit bias training just helps people adjust their thought processes in order to achieve better results. This seems like a win-win to me because we will all benefit. And just imagine what we can achieve!

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