We don’t always know when we’re biased

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Most of the bias in our society operates without people being aware of their own bias.

Over at the Shanker Institute’s blog, research associate Esther Quintero has rounded up some key points about implicit bias, which operates below the conscious level, using the same system as other mental shortcuts that help us function in day-to-day life.

This bias gets into everyone. As Quintero writes, “Stereotypes operate implicitly…regardless of our own race/gender, and even when our personal beliefs are completely to the contrary.” That doesn’t make its effects any less harmful, but it hopefully makes it easier to accept that having implicit bias doesn’t put you in the same camp as Bull Connor; it just means you’re a human being living in a society that continues to be marked by its past and present racism.

The ramifications of this are broad. Quintero offers three classic studies looking at the effect of implicit bias on hiring and academic tenure decisions, as well as on letters of recommendation. It’s also fair to hypothesize that implicit bias may contribute to the racial disparities we see in school discipline responses and special education identification. Especially when formal policies are ambiguous, like when “defiance” is a suspendable offense, implicit bias subverts decision making.

There is some good news about weakening implicit bias. The more familiar we are with an individual, the weaker our implicit bias becomes, at least with regard to that individual.

For teachers, this means that building strong individual relationships with their students can help undercut any implicit bias that might affect their judgment and behavior. Additionally, teachers can help students disrupt their own implicit biases by, for example, intentionally structuring group work to help students build those individual associations and break down stereotypes.

At the policy level, this is another argument for smaller class sizes. The more students a teacher is trying to serve, the longer it will take and the harder it will be for them to build strong individual relationships with each student. Additionally, this offers additional reasons to pursue integrated schools. Finally, policymakers should support professional development that helps teachers build awareness of and counteract their implicit biases without shaming them as bad people.

By default, schools in a society with deeply embedded institutional racism and sexism (and other forms of oppression) will replicate and perpetuate those problems. However, we can use the available research on implicit bias and teachers’ capacity for building relationships with their students as tools of anti-racism. We need to do so intentionally, with the recognition that the default state is harmful implicit bias.