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What is implicit bias? Here’s why it matters for our communities

implicit bias
Posted at 11:03 AM, Mar 04, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-04 20:46:55-05

For better or worse, there has been no shortage of difficult conversations these last few years from the pandemic to the racial reckoning America is currently grappling with. But figuring out how the country got here requires a hard look at our communities and ourselves and many experts say familiarizing ourselves with the concept of implicit bias, is one way to help heal deep divisions across the nation.

"The division is stark right now, and I think everyone can see and feel that," explained Sarah Fahim, who studies implicit bias and oversees a consulting agency called Run with the Wolves.

At its core, implicit bias is, "an algorithm of the mind; it's a complex set of emotions that attach themselves to experiences we've been through," Fahim noted.

Implicit bias has been studied for years, and it's an incredibly complex topic that involves nearly every facet of society: race, gender, age, education, economics, where a person lives, how they were raised. All of these factors and more play a role in implicit bias.

Implicit bias means people do things without being aware of them, making decisions or taking actions based on preference we might have toward a person or group of people.

In teaching courses on implicit bias, Fahim typically points to this hypothetical example to help explain the concept to people:

A boy and his father are in a car accident and the father passes away.

The boy is then rushed to the hospital, whereupon arriving in the emergency room, the operating surgeon shouts, "That's my son!"

Studies show that 40 percent of people will come up with elaborate reasons for who the surgeon is since the boy's father passed away. When in reality, the surgeon is the boy's mother.

The implicit bias, in this hypothetical scenario, is the assumption that surgeons are typically men.

"If everyone has bias, implicit bias is something people don’t know or think they have, and it’s really acquired in a lot of different ways," said Danielle Kilgo, who serves as a Journalism Professor at the University of Minnesota.

Kilgo points to this example from her own childhood when trying to explain implicit bias.

"When I was a kid, I bit into a Granny Smith apple and I said I wasn't going to eat apples again because it was too tart. It took a long time to realize that wasn't the case. Is an apple not tasting good this one time how all apples taste? No. And I think we have to look at it like that if we're going to overcome those implicit biases that we have," she said.

Raul Fernandez, who serves as the associate dean for equity, diversity and inclusion at Boston University's Wheelock College says a lot of implicit bias is rooted in the environments people were raised in.

"It really comes from our lack of understanding of people who are different than ourselves," Fernandez said.

Fernandez says that years of research shows that implicit bias impacts nearly every system of society, " It really starts to feed into the gaps we see in healthcare, education, the workforce, gender identity, economic status, religion."

Kevin Benz, who also studies the impact of implicit bias in journalism and the media, points to the importance of understanding our own internal biases. He says being more conscious of those implicit biases help us to form more accepting, empathetic communities.

"We only see the world through a single lens, a single set of eyes, our own. Compassion and empathy require us to take one step back and consider how others are feeling, how others see the world," Benz said.