David Gooblar

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

Yes, You Have Implicit Biases, Too

Full vitae implicit bias front

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The fact that implicit biases are implicit — that is, hidden even from ourselves — means that our perception of what is right may be off. Some employers who favor a white applicant over a black person with the same credentials don’t think they are prejudiced, and are unaware of their own bias. When such assumptions remain unconscious, they can deform our sense of fairness. As Devine notes in a 2012 article, "Implicit biases persist and are powerful determinants of behavior precisely because people lack personal awareness of them."

That article details an experimental intervention, led Devine and her colleagues, to help subjects overcome implicit bias. In the years since, she has led many such interventions, both in and out of academe, and has been able to demonstrate remarkable success in reducing prejudicial behavior. In one such case, a series of gender-bias workshops at departments across the University of Wisconsin seemed to lead to an 18-percent increase in the hiring of female faculty members at those departments over the next two years.

We can’t all participate in one of Devine’s workshops. But in seeking to counter our own implicit biases, we can make use of the strategies she and her colleagues suggest, including:

  • "Stereotype replacement" — in which you recognize and label your biased behavior or thoughts and replace them with nonprejudicial responses.
  • "Counter-stereotypic imaging" — in which you imagine examples of people who defy the stereotypes of their groups.
  • "Perspective taking" — in which you try to adopt the perspective of someone in a marginalized group.

Underlying all of those strategies is awareness: You have to be conscious of the existence of implicit biases, and the probability that you yourself may be influenced by them, before you can do anything about the problem. For all the controversy it has attracted, the "progressive stack" strikes me as an approach that attempts to respond to the problem of implicit bias in teaching. It developed in the context of Occupy Wall Street meetings. In the college classroom, the progressive stack involves looking for ways to create space for students from marginalized groups. If a number of students raise their hands to talk, you call on the marginalized students first, making sure that they get to speak. Without that conscious intervention, what you think of as a fair distribution of speakers may just be the furtherance of an unhealthy social dynamic: The privileged kids feel free to speak, while the marginalized students stay silent.

We communicate important values to our students by who and what we choose to give our attention to. Some things you can try in your own classroom: Look to highlight the work of people from marginalized groups in your field. Assign readings by women and people of color. Do what you can to model for your students what a more just version of your discipline might look like. Actively work against cultural stereotypes instead of passively assuming they’ll go away with time.

We may never be completely aware of our own implicit biases. But by assuming that we hold at least some of the pernicious stereotypes that our cultures have handed down to us, we can take steps to counteract them. As faculty members, we have a particular responsibility to work on this. Our role in the college classroom requires us to work toward a perhaps impossible ideal of equity. The first step is to open our eyes and look in the mirror.

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