June 24, 2020

Explore Your Own Unconscious Bias

Written by Julye M. Williams

A lover of people, justice, and equity.

“Two fish are swimming in the water and an older, wiser fish swims by.

He says, “Good morning, how’s the water?”

One of the younger fish looks a bit puzzled and says, “Excuse me, what is water?

– David Foster Wallace – Commencement Speech Excerpt.

Racism in America is like water to a fish. You live in it whether you know it or not.

By simply living in the United States, you are bound to absorb messages that indicate who is better and more favored in society and who is less, or least deserving. The messages come from all over and are constant. If you’re not paying attention, they can be subliminal. From messages about beauty and intellect to the administration of “justice” and more, advantages and disadvantages based on one’s race flow through American life.

But how are these beliefs and messages perpetuated?

Is it the infamous “man” somewhere in the shadows ensuring that stereotypes and disparities persist in our schools, clubs and organizations? The truth is that there is no “man” making sure the structure of systemic racism stays in place. Sadly, it’s so ingrained in our culture that no single individual is needed to ensure its existence. Systemic racism is maintained by everyday people operating within the system. 

But how is this possible? Most people would adamantly profess that they “treat everyone the same,” and that they don’t make decisions based on someone’s race, gender or other identity. Unfortunately, the evidence of unconscious bias routinely proves otherwise. 

Unconscious bias is a near-instantaneous process within our brains.

It happens when we allow our feelings, attitudes, and stereotypes to affect our judgment or understanding of people and our subsequent actions. These feelings and attitudes are often deep-seated (this is why they’re unconscious) and our response to situations regarding them often happens without our awareness. Whether intentional or not, unconscious bias – the quick action of our brains – is harmful. 

Across our society, the connections between unconscious bias and race are visible in many ways:

  • A 2003 study found that out of more than 5,000 resumes sent to employers in Chicago and Boston, that resumes with White sounding names were 50% more likely to receive a call back than those with Black sounding names.
  • In the 2011-12 school year, black children represented just 18% of pre-school enrollment, but more than 48% of the preschool children who received more than one out of school suspension. In contrast, White children represented 43% of preschool enrollment and just 26% of those receiving more than one out of school suspension.
  • Within the news media, the lack of reporting about missing and murdered Indigenous women, and the high rate of police shootings among Indigenous people (the rate is higher than that of African Americans), reflects a bias in news reporting.

Today, we invite you to explore the ways in which you may hold an unconscious bias.

The great news is that there is an online test designed to help you do this. The IAT, or Implicit Association Test, was developed in 1998 by researchers from Harvard University, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington. The assessment explores many areas of unconscious bias including your deep seated beliefs on age, weight, sexuality, religion, race and more.

As for what to do next, there is good news and bad news.

Research shows that you cannot “turn off” an unconscious bias. What you can do, however, is become more informed about how your biases show up in your day to day interactions and take notice of when you may be acting on a bias versus fact. We’ll talk more about the next steps in a later post. For today, take the assessment and give yourself an opportunity for reflection. 

In summary, we all live in the polluted waters of American society. We can know in our hearts that treating people differently is wrong, and yet we still hold unconscious bias. Our work to create an inclusive and equitable society will require that we identify these biases within  ourselves, and take action to ensure we don’t perpetuate the harmful actions that have maintained our society for so long.

In solidarity,


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