What is implicit bias? It is the brain's automatic, instant association of particular stereotypes with certain groups, which manifests in certain attitudes toward these groups.
Because our implicit biases are reflexive, we are not aware of them. We act on them but without making a conscious choice to do so. Implicit bias exists in all groups and in all people. Implicit biases are normal, everyone has them, and everyone is susceptible to acting on them.
NYSBA staff attended a hour-long presentation on implicit bias by Gregory Owens, director of strategic partnerships and collaborations at the New York State Office of Children and Family Services
Owens, a licensed master social worker, gave a fast-paced presentation fueled with anecdotes and insights. He covered implicit bias, why it's bad - and good - why it's universal and why fact-based knowledge is key to interrupting it. "Once you know, you can't un-know," he said. Ignorance no longer applies.
Owens explained that we need implicit bias, We process 11 million bits of information a minute but our capacity to effectively handle information maxes out at 40 bits. Our brain automatically sorts and categorizes the other 10,999,960 bits, which allows us to navigate the world without being overwhelmed by data.
However, when our brain's protection program results in a leap to a conclusion, and we unquestioningly react without evidence to inform our reaction, our reliance on our instincts can have real consequences for those affected by our bias.
Implicit bias factors into interactions that run the gamut from headline-grabbing police shootings to tipping the wait staff to how much you pay for a car. It colors school discipline from pre-school through high school. Being perceived as black or white can determine whether and where you are shown a home or apartment or whether you get a job interview.
How can we interrupt implicit bias, halt the "go-to" before it starts? The first step in interrupting implicit bias is understanding that it exists and knowing the facts.
• In a 2009 study, African-American and white candidates were interviewed for low-wage jobs. Candidates had identical resumes and identical interview training. Yet, whites with criminal records were offered jobs at the same rate as African-Americans with no criminal records.
• A 2003 study mailed thousands of identical resumes to employers with job openings. The resumes were randomly assigned a "white" sounding name (i.e., Brendan) or an African-American sounding name (i.e., Jamal). Brendan got a callback at a rate 50 percent higher than Jamal.
• Photographs taken after Hurricane Katrina showed people struggling through high water dragging garbage bags full of what they could salvage. Two stood out because of their captions: One AP photo of a black man was captioned: "A young man walks through chest-deep flood water after looting a local grocery store in New Orleans." The other AP photo showed a white couple, with the caption: "Two residents wade through chest deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store after Hurricane Katrina came through the area."
• Participants in a 2017 study regularly judged a black man to be larger, stronger and more muscular than an identically sized white man. In a 2003 study of similar black and white faces participants showed a greater tendency to perceive anger and a threatening affect in the black faces.
• According to a study by the Yale Child Study Center, even at the pre-school level, teachers watch black boys more closely, because there is an expectation that these boys will misbehave.
• As part of a study on children and race commissioned by CNN, first graders were shown ambiguous pictures of black and white children together. Seventy percent of the white children felt that something negative was happening in the pictures, but only 38 percentof the black children did. Sadly, that same study showed that white children have an overwhelming white bias and that black children do too.
As Greg Owens noted, implicit bias is rooted in normal cognitive processes. Community, workplace and family members working to disrupt implicit bias must remain aware that these biases are embedded in our brains, and that our greatest tool is knowledge.
He then closed with a quote from author James Baldwin that underscores both the enormity of the task and the value of each small step: "The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you can alter, even by a millimeter, the way people look at reality, then you can change the world."