Excuse me, your bias is showing: Our unconscious stereotypes affect everything, but can be changed

Updated: Jun 19, 2020

Let’s start with a riddle.

A father and his son are in a tragic accident. The father is pronounced dead on the scene, and his son is rushed to the hospital with life-threatening injuries.

However, just as the son is about to go under the knife, the surgeon looks at the operating table and says, “I can’t operate on this boy, he’s my son!”

How can this be?

If you guessed that the surgeon is the boy’s mother, you would be correct. But if you were wrong, don’t worry; you’re far from alone.

In a Boston University research study using this riddle, 85 percent of participants could not come up with the correct answer. Even young people and self-described feminists failed to consider that the surgeon could be a woman.

If you are part of that majority, it does not make you sexist or a bad person. It makes you human.

This riddle is just one example of implicit bias, or the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious manner. Every single person — no matter who they are or how educated they may be — holds implicit biases.

Joel Friesz, the director of Youth Interventions at LSSND, was quick to emphasize that holding implicit biases does not make you a bad person. He referenced a book by Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji that is titled Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.

“It doesn’t make you a bad person if you have biases,” says Friesz. “It’s just how the human body is made. It’s really about what we do with those biases and how we manage them that is the important piece.”

And in our current climate — where conversations about systematic racism and inequities have been brought to the forefront — it is perhaps more important than even before to take the time to evaluate and challenge the implicit biases we all hold.

While it’s understandable to wish for a way to be “cured” of implicit bias, Friesz explains that it unfortunately does not work that way.

There’s no quick fix for implicit bias,” he said. “It’s not something you can ‘get over’ or get rid of, but you can minimize the impact that it has within your life and the way that you think about things.”

Here are some steps you can start taking right now to be more aware of the implicit biases you hold and begin to challenge those ideas:

1. Educate yourself.

Progress cannot be made without education.

“The more that we learn about implicit bias, the better we are going to be able to make progress on these important topics that are impacting our communities,” says Friesz.

Implicit biases often begin to form in early childhood and continue to develop throughout our lives. Therefore, it is helpful to think about what you learned or heard about another group of people as a child or teenager that may have given you a negative impression. Then, challenge those beliefs.

“It’s important to take time to think through ‘Why do I think a certain way about a certain group of people? Is it true or is it just a stereotype?’” explains Friesz.

A great resource for exposing and confronting implicit bias is the Implicit Association Test (IAT) available for free online through Harvard. The test measures implicit biases in a total of 15 categories such as race, age, weight, gender or religion.

You can take the IAT test here.

2. Look inward.

Awareness is only the first step.

After taking the IAT and learning about the unconscious biases you may hold, it is important to make a conscious effort to challenge those beliefs. Once you are aware of a bias, it is easier to recognize it in your thought patterns.

“When we hear a stereotype or a label for a group of people, we should pause and ask ourselves, ‘Is that true? Why do I think that way?’” Friesz says. “We should pause and think through it, and then move forward in a way that does not allow the bias to have an impact on the way we think.”

3. Expand your circles.

A great way to work toward unlearning implicit bias is to expand your circles. This can be done through reevaluating the books you read, the movies you watch or the events you attend.

Getting outside your comfort zone and meeting people of different cultures and identities makes it much easier to dismantle stereotypes and break down biases.

It is also helpful to look at people as individuals, rather than members of a specific group or culture.

Lastly, it is important to remember that implicit bias has a much further reach than just our personal thoughts or beliefs.

“Implicit bias impacts us individually, but it also impacts the systems that we work in,” says Friesz. “It impacts all fields — health care, criminal justice and education are just a few.”

Overall, implicit bias is a complex and tough topic, but Friesz emphasizes that it is “one of the most important topics of our time.” Sparking conversations and committing to be a lifelong learner is integral if we hope to move toward a more just and equitable society.

Let this blog post be the first of many articles you read, podcasts you listen to and conversations you start on the subject of implicit bias.

LSSND offers Implicit Bias workshops in various formats and can customize sessions to the specific needs of the group. Depending on group size, 2-4 hours is typically the minimum time needed for a session on Implicit Bias. Some groups may wish to dedicate a full day to this topic, while others may wish to start with a 30-minute introductory overview session. If needed, workshops can be held virtually due to COVID-19.

No matter the group — be it a school, union, service club, police department, business or church — everyone can benefit from opening up a conversation about the implicit biases we all hold.

If you would like to start the conversation about implicit bias in your workplace, contact Joel Friesz at joelf@lssnd.org.

By Micayla Bitz

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