We’re all biased and we can do something about it

I’m a straight white male, and I’m biased. I can’t help it. You’re biased too, and you can’t help it either.

Even The Reverend Jesse Jackson, a black civil rights leader, is biased. He acknowledged it when he said:

“There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life, than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery—then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”

The Reverend Jackson, you, and I all have something in common: ‘implicit bias’.

Jennifer Saul, a philosopher at the The University of Sheffield, describes implicit bias as “unconscious, automatic tendencies to associate certain traits with members of particular social groups, in ways that lead to some very disturbing errors: we tend to judge members of stigmatized groups more negatively, in a whole host of ways.”

She goes on to say it “operates below the level of consciousness,” and it affects everybody equally. Whether you’re an 80-year-old white man living in Omaha or a 24-year-old black lesbian in Los Angeles, your thinking is affected by implicit bias.

It happens whether you want it to or not. I’m progressive and it happens to me. It also happens to you. It happens to everybody.

Implicit bias doesn’t just occur with race. It also comes bundled with gender and sexuality. Any stigmatized group gets slapped with implicit bias by all of us.


We can’t help being influenced by these stigmatizations. Even those in the marginalized groups can’t help it. “We are treating members of stigmatised groups badly, even if we desperately desire to treat them well.”

Saul cites a study on girls and math tests. The trope is that women aren’t good at STEM disciplines. The trope, called stereotype threat, is the problem:

“If you ask five-to-seven-year-old girls to colour in drawings of girls holding dolls before taking a math test, their performance is significantly reduced. Reminding women math students about strong women role models just before they took a difficult math test [eliminated] their typical underperformance on the test.”

This leads to everybody not being as good as they can be. Again, Dr. Saul:

“If you actually are basing lots of decisions on the social categories that people you encounter belong to, then you’re clearly not doing as well as you can. You’re making the wrong decisions epistemically speaking: taking an argument to be better than it is, perhaps; or wrongly discounting the view of someone you should listen to.”

I want to be better than this. And actually, I CAN help it. You can too.

Saul mentions several ways to reduce or eliminate implicit bias. Anonymizing hiring processes goes a long way, for example. Associating marginalized groups with positive characteristics helps.


But there’s something even more fundamental that needs to happen: I have to acknowledge that I have implicit bias. Only then can I work on it.

Bias is different from racism or sexism, because it’s not a conscious act. But any denial of an inherent trait allows that trait to grow.

If two people are depressed, which one has better odds for recovery: the one who admits it, or the one who refuses to? If two people have an enraging experience, who is going to act more responsibly: the one who realizes they’re mad as hell, or the one who lets anger guide their actions?

So if everybody has bias, who is more likely to account for it? Those who acknowledge it.

If you fancy yourself too progressive to be biased, your bias is only going to get stronger. Self-justifications (I have tons of hispanic friends! I contribute to GLAAD and NPR!) allow your biases to go unchecked. You will continue to act more and more biased. And that starts to look like bigotry.

It pains me to acknowledge I’m biased, and it probably pains you. It’s hard to acknowledge our perspective is at fault, because how we see the world feels like the truth. The silver lining is this, that implicit bias seems to be the one thing we can collaborate on, the bind that ties us together.

Being proactive and aware can help us demarginalize, destigmatize, and also make us stronger as individuals and a society.


[Featured image from grace_kat under Creative Commons 2.0 license. Cartoons by xkcd.com. Thumbs up/down illustration is here.]