How implicit bias shapes our world

By Dr. Ward Ulmer, Interim President of Walden University

Illustration of multi-ethnic head shots.There is no doubt we are in the midst of another teachable moment. As the momentum of #MeToo continues to take down powerful people who prey upon others, the U.S. faces another wave of cultural clashes with deep roots.

A flurry of racial profiling incidents has caught the media’s attention. What happened to two African-American men at a Philadelphia Starbucks is not a singular occurrence. A white Yale student called the police on a black Yale student who was sleeping in their dorm’s common room. A white mother who was touring Colorado State University with her child called campus police on two Native American men who joined the tour while it was already in progress. The latest headline comes from Hollywood, where Roseanne Barr tweeted a racist statement about Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama.

On May 29, Starbucks’ CEO closed 8,000 stores to train 175,000 employees on racial bias. It’s not that easy, some argue. Many of us are aware of explicit bias, which refers to attitudes that are deliberately formed and we are conscious of and act on. Implicit bias, on the other hand, happens on the subconscious level. Although I grew up in a fairly homogenous environment, I value and respect others for their diverse perspectives that make my life—and I believe our society—richer on so many levels. With that in mind, I sought the expertise of my colleagues to learn more about implicit bias and what can be done.

I spoke with Dr. Patty Costello, Walden University’s program director for the BS in Psychology program. Dr. Costello, a neuroscientist, studies implicit cognition, or unconscious influences of knowledge, perception, and memory on our social judgements and actions. She notes that anyone can take an Implicit Association Test (IAT) that measures unconscious bias. Beyond this test, evidence of biases is visible in brain scans. What’s more, she says, implicit biases show up in children as young as 3 years old and can be statistically indistinguishable from adults’ responses to the IAT.

Surprised at how early these biases present in children, I asked Dr. Costello if there’s a way to prevent them from forming.

“It’s important to start having candid conversations with each other and our children about race, bias, and stereotypes,” she said. “Point out the advantages or disadvantages we have in society due to skin color—the earlier the better. Having the emotional intelligence to be self-aware of your own implicit biases is just a step, but in the right direction.”

I also connected with Dr. Savitri Dixon-Saxon, vice provost of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and co-chair of Walden’s Diversity and Inclusion Working Group. We discussed how implicit bias can occur in the online learning environment and how at Walden we strive to provide a welcoming learning environment for all.

Dr. Dixon-Saxon said a lot of people think the introduction of an online learning environment is a true equalizer. In a lot of ways it can be, by providing access and opportunity for so many, including working parents, people with disabilities, and those who live in remote communities.

“But, people are still people, and people make assumptions based on what they see out in the world,” said Dr. Dixon-Saxon. “Sometimes those biases carry over into the online classroom.”

She believes—and I agree—that we are all responsible for making a concerted effort to learn more about each other and be ambassadors of diversity and inclusion. Most importantly, we need to be able to share and understand each other’s motivations and experiences in a respectful and understanding environment. Everyone’s perspectives—especially those different from our own—add value to our learning.

“Encouraging each other to be open and share will not only allow for more personal and professional growth, but also prepare our community of learners to be more effective social change agents,” she said. “Imagine asking enough questions to find a real shared experience with someone. Then, we can replace implicit bias with empathy.”

Jarrett, the target of Barr’s racist tweet, was correct when she referred to this as a teachable moment. As we read and hear about these situations in the news, we should also acknowledge the many incidents that occur every day that don’t go viral. We all need to look inward and examine how we can contribute to a more diverse and inclusive society and always do the right thing.

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