Implicit Bias: How You Can Be Racist Without Knowing It


Implicit bias has been defined as the bias in judgment and/or behaviour that results from subtle cognitive process that operate at a level below conscious awareness. Implicit bias is not about individuals being intentionally aggressive towards a particular group. That’s where people get it wrong. This is where people get automatically defensive when you throw an ism at them: racism, sexism, ageism etc.

More often than not, people are not being accused of knowingly holding malice in their heart for another person. No one is saying people put on racist cream before they go to bed and give themselves pep talks on the inferiority of women first thing in the morning, of course what we are talking about is implicit bias.

We are all guilty of stereotyping. We must all admit that we believe narratives told to us about another group of people and we use these narratives to make assumptions about a person based on certain characteristics that attach them to that group. The same way we were taught that the Chinese are good at math, we were taught that Nigerians are good at fraud or that African children are starving.

If you break down most of these stereotypes, look at the statistics and try and study how a whole society of human beings can be attributed to one particular trait, you’ll see that these narratives don’t hold up very well. But that doesn’t matter. In order to be efficient, humans have learnt to group people and label them so that we can protect ourselves quicker and more easily from any impending threats. For our more primitive ancestors, this may have been an evolutionary advantage.

Also for anyone who’s worked in retail, you know you cannot afford to treat every customer with suspicion in order to catch shoplifters, you must learn the art of profiling.

But what happens when profiling is based on false evidence? Seemingly harmless stereotypes can lead people to be treated unfairly and held back from career opportunities. Narratives, constructed by popular society can result in the marginalisation an entire portion of society.

The news story of a black female doctor having to prove her credentials on a Delta airlines flight before she was allowed to help a dying passenger is unfortunately a story with which many black professionals are all too familiar. Studies have shown that having a foreign sounding name on a job application means that you are far less likely to get an interview than someone with a British name of the same application.

This doesn’t happen because people are intentionally waking up with hate in their heart. It happens because the stereotypes and associations we all make everyday become a real issue when those assumptions help to form our opinions of others. Unbeknownst to our conscious thought, we judge others based on superficial characteristics like race, gender, age or accent, which have no bearing on a person’s character, morality or credentials. It happens when we don’t admit that the labels we have created contribute to a systematic hierarchy of prejudice.

The solution, therefore, is not to become defensive next time you are accused of discrimination. It is to ask yourself whether your behaviour towards a particular person may have had something to do with an assumption you made about them that you didn’t even know you made. Instead of trying to defend your position, why not try and think why the majority of people in a particular group may come up against daily discrimination and whether you too may be guilty of believing the narratives that too often, are used to form a reductionist, unfair view of people.

So next time your behaviour is called sexist or racist, before you fight back, first consider whether you could have  been a victim of implicit bias.


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