Is implicit bias real?

April 20, 2021

In my travels, I have recently been asked by several people if implicit bias – also known as unconscious bias – is real.  So I’ve decided to write about it here. Implicit bias refers to the beliefs and/or attitudes that influence our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.  Now that we have a definition, does it really exist?  Let’s look at some situations that have made national headlines in the last 30 days.

On April 12, 2018, two black men were arrested ata Philadelphia Starbucks, after an employee called police to report  the men were loitering. The men hadn’t ordered anything while waiting for a business associate to arrive and refused to leave the premises when asked to.

On April 16, 2018, two black men were asked to leave an LA Fitness gym because they were suspected of not having paid or been “scanned” into the gym.  In fact, they had been scanned in – twice – and yet, they were still forced to leave after the gym manager called police.

Just this past Friday, on May 4, 2018, two teenage brothers – who happened to be Native American – were on a tour at Colorado State University as potential students.  A woman on the tour called police stating they made her “nervous,” and that they were wearing “black clothing.” Police pulled the two young men from the tour.

In the business world (at least the one I’m involved in), these actions would be seen as examples of a very conscious bias (i.e., racism), and therefore would be not socially or culturally acceptable.  But could these be examples of implicit or unconscious bias?  These examples have one clear commonality: each incident involved a small group of people, behaving in ordinary ways, being singled out for unexplained reasons, and being forced to leave the premises.  This is what implicit bias looks like. If you are reading this and you are Caucasian, ask yourself these questions:

  1. Has anything like these events ever happened to you personally?
  2. Has anything like these events ever happened to anyone that you know who happens to be Caucasian?
  3. Can you imagine any of these incidences occurring if the subjects involved were Caucasian?

If your answer to any of these questions is “yes,” I want to emphasize that these people were behaving in ordinary ways.  If your answer is still, “yes,” I would welcome an opportunity to discuss the situation with you.  People of any race or color can be thrown out of places for all sorts of inappropriate behaviors. But that is not what we are discussing here.  If your answers to the aforementioned questions are “no,” you may already be aware of and/or be ready to do something about implicit or unconscious bias.  

What to do?

Sadly, implicit bias is not something that will fade on its own or disappear based on our own passivity or inactivity.  It is automatically reinforced by the reduction of our fear when we respond to it. For example, the woman who called police on the two Native American teenagers explicitly stated that she was “nervous.”  That nervousness was decreased as soon as police pulled the two boys out of the campus tour – thus reducing her fear, reinforcing the behavior, increasing its likelihood of recurring.

Implicit bias will only change if we address it.  Whether you own/run a business or are a solopreneur, we all have an opportunity to address implicit bias when we see it.  How?

  1. Awareness:  
  2. Start with yourself: Are you aware of any situations where you may feel uncomfortable/nervous/anxious when you are around people who do not look like you, sound like you, act like you, think like you?
  3. Awareness of others: Are you aware of any friends or family that may feel uncomfortable/nervous/anxious when they are around people who do not look like them, sound like them, act like them, think like them?
  4. Acknowledge: Begin discussions with your friends and family.  You go first! Make yourself vulnerable by sharing times and situations where you might have been influenced by implicit bias.  Listen – with appreciation and without judgement – to the stories of others who can acknowledge the same challenges in themselves.
  5. Stand up: When you see what might be implicit bias in others (actions in others that don’t seem to make sense based on observable behaviors), challenge it.  We saw this in the Starbucks example with other patrons asking, “What did these guys do wrong?”
  6. Construct: If you are part of an organization, build a culture that moves beyond policies to influence behavior.  Build a culture that focuses on behavioral rules and processes that embrace diversity while maintaining high standards of performance.  Undermine implicit bias by building a diverse, multiracial, multinational, multigenerational workforce. The more we are exposed to collaborative environments with people of diverse backgrounds, the less we will fear those who are different from ourselves.

I open every one of my culture presentations with the following statement: “When you change the way you see the world, the world you see changes.”  If we see the world as a dangerous place, then differences we are unfamiliar with create fear, and create and/or support implicit bias. If we see the world as having one human tribe, then differences we are unfamiliar with can become something to be investigated without fear; they are just variations within our tribe.  If we can see and conceive a world without implicit bias, then we can all work to create one.

Let’s build that culture – together!

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