The start of the new school year is a time of new beginnings and it is also a good time to look in the mirror and examine our own biases, stereotypes and prejudices. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge that they exist in all of us, regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, or religion. This is important not only for teachers, police and others who deal with the public, but for all who hope for a country and world that truly reflects the words of equality and fairness that are the foundation of the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution.
We are told not to judge a book by its cover – Yet this is precisely how we frequently behave. Take the job interview for instance – Interview coaches will spend a great deal of time stressing the impact of first impressions we make in an interview i.e., get your hair styled, hands and fingernails clean, nice attire, firm handshake and look a person in the eyes. All of this comes before the interview which is supposed to be the portion that reveals ones qualifications. Why is this so? This is most likely due to implicit bias. Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. American Bar Association – legal definition)
In 1992 I had just returned from the Peace Corps and traveling around South East Asia. I moved to Powderhorn Park area of Minneapolis and my first purchase was a brand new mountain bike, which was my only mode of transportation. Several months later my bike was stolen and I was devastated. I was on the constant look out in my neighborhood for my bike. However, I began to take note that when I saw African American kids with a blue bike I took a far longer and focused look than I did when I saw white kids with blue bikes. When I realized this it concerned me. I wasn’t racist (I didn’t think) – I was in the Peace Corps after all, how could I be. Why was this so? As I looked deeper into why I might react this way I became more aware of my own implicit biases. Where did this come from? Then I began to realize that I had (in a sense) been programmed for this.
While my upbringing stressed tolerance and acceptance for all people, many of the media messages I was getting were exactly the opposite. Take cartoons from the 50’s and 60’s; here we can find a never ending supply of racist images that were ingrained. The blackface crows of Dumbo, The Native American portrayals in Peter Pan or the portrayal of Asians with giant glasses and bucked teeth. Old Looney Toon cartoons portrayed Arabs as greedy saber wielding fools.
Then there were the Television crime shows and sitcoms – Adam 12, Dragnet, Starskey and Hutch – All of these shows had white male cops or detectives and many times African American criminals. I Spy stood out because it broke the mold with an African American (Bill Cosby) in a leading role as a productive character. Then there were the wholesome shows (some of which I still love today) like Leave it to Beaver, Andy Griffith, The Brady Bunch, all shows that showed healthy white families with morals. Put these against Good Times which portrayed an African American family living in the projects with a frequently unemployed father and Jimmy Walker as the loveable fool. These portrayals and images were unconsciously burned into my head.
If we are aware of some of the causes of implicit biases can we avoid it? The answer is probably not. Scientific research suggests that implicit bias is a built in defenses mechanism. If a stranger approaches but they look and behave like us they are quite possibly a friend. If a stranger approaches and they look and behave differently, they may be an enemy. This goes back to the earliest human times.
Then what is the impact in today’s world. Quite simply it leads to discrimination based on difference. Think of what this means in policing, teaching, criminal justice, bank loans, housing, hiring practices, etc. etc.
Take teaching for example. What impact could implicit bias have on a typical classroom in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Roseville or St. Louis Park? Many of the classrooms in these school districts are very diverse in makeup. What is going through a teachers head as the students enter the room the first day? Some are Native American, some are Asian, some are African American, some are white, some where a hijab, some may have a physical handicap, some are dressed very nice and others are not. How does a teacher teach each student equally and fairly with the same high expectation for everyone based on their character and not their outward physical appearance?
This is the paradox. If we can’t avoid it, yet realize that it can be quite harmful in today’s world, what can we do? The answer is we must be aware and reflective within our-selves. We must examine our own biases we may have and then reflect frequently on the impact they have on our relationship with others. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge they exist. One does not have to think they are racist to admit that implicit bias does indeed exist in their own view of people that are different.
To get the conversation going within yourself I would suggest taking an on-line test through Harvard University called Harvard Project Implicit - https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html After taking the short test, pass this it on to family and friends, and have a frank discussion about your results. At the same time be prepared for a difficult conversation. Nobody admits to bias or racism; however the test results may contradict that and help start that conversation.