Government official, nurse, figure skater, American. What is the first image or type of person that pops into mind when you hear each of those words?
Did you picture a middle-aged white male wearing a suit for the government official? Did you think of a white person with light skin and light hair when you thought of an American?
If so, you’re not alone, nor are you wrong. Within the U.S., white males make up roughly 31% of the population while they hold 65% of elected offices. In the U.S., 60.1% of the population is white identifying. But what about the 35% of non-white male-identifying political figures? Are they not government officials? What about the 39.9% of all Americans who are not white identifying? Are they not American?
This is implicit bias: a subconscious association of characteristics and feelings towards a person, action, or thing. You don’t need to feel ashamed of your implicit biases nor think that you are outright racist because of the implicit biases you have. After all, they are subconscious, shaped by the society we live in, the people we interact with and the experiences we have. And to put in nicely, implicit biases are a way of providing our brains with an explanation or categorization of things, the two behaviors that humans are notoriously obsessed with doing.
Even if we don’t have much control over our implicit biases, people still need to understand and attempt to fix their biases because of the extremely detrimental effects that false implicit biases can have on society, further reinforcing incorrect stereotypes, especially surrounding race.
While we may not want to admit it, implicit biases often run contrary to our conscious beliefs and values. Unproportional police brutality against African Americans is just one of the prevalent areas where implicit biases exist. In the 121.00 Oath of Office, all St. Paul police officers agree to, “enforce the laws of the United States, of the State of Minnesota, and of the City of Saint Paul impartially.” Yet according to the Pew Research Center, black adults are five times more likely than whites to say they’ve been unfairly stopped by police because of their race. Black people also make up 35 percent of Minnesota prisoners while they only consist of 6 percent of the population. Sure, it is fair to say that the disproportionate numbers of black prisoners may be in part because of a corrupt system, higher crime rates in black communities and because of intentionally racist targeting of the black community, but a large factor of these arrests is also due to the impartial biases of police officers themselves. These implicit biases, that African Americans possess more “danger” than other races, are often triggered under rapid and spur-of-the-moment conditions like the natural circumstances police officers face on duty. These implicit biases also explain why the rate of police shootings for BIPOC communities is much much higher than that of whites. From these statistics, we can see that the implicit racial biases of police not only harm communities of color but also reinforce faulty racial stereotypes to the rest of society. This chain reaction is also why incorrect implicit biases need to be addressed and fixed. For public safety, this means that police reform and better officer training need to be enacted to erase the issues that both explicit and implicit racial biases create.
Besides policing, implicit racial biases in schooling all across America are also extremely prevalent. While the vast majority of teachers won’t declare or even consciously think that a white student is more worthy of attention than students of color, nor will an administrator claim students of color deserve more punishment than whites students, subtle statistics that point to implicit biases in teachers do exist. College professors are more likely to respond to white male emails than that of all other groups of minorities, including white females; suspension rates of black students are three times higher than white students. These implicit biases in our communities sound somewhat shocking but the reality is that they have been following us around for years. We simply just don’t address them as often because they are harder to pinpoint. On top of that, no one wants to believe they are unconsciously “racist” or believe that they aren’t free of biases that they themselves condemn consciously.
To test out my own implicit biases, I took an IAT test, a popular form of testing for implicit biases during earlier decades. While these tests have recently been proven to only be conclusive with a collection of results and data, my results were still unshockingly shocking- I had a “slight automatic association for American with European American and Foreign with Asian American.” Certainly, these results don’t mean I’m racist but they do show that even I, an Asian American, am not free of the racial implicit biases that associate Americans as white and foreigners as non-white. To fix the implicit biases that we all have, we need to accept vulnerability and the fact that there are changes needed within ourselves and the rest of the community.
As we continue to tackle issues of racism in society, it’s important to recognize that only battling explicitly racist biases is not enough. To truly make a change, we need to also start deconstructing implicit biases as well. By understanding our implicit biases, we can better predict our actions, impulses, and how they structure the racial issues we face. By accepting that we all have faulty racial implicit biases, we can also reduce the sense of self-shame we feel when acknowledging our own biases that we didn’t think we had. Certainly, if there were an easy solution to fixing faulty biases, we all would have done it by now. But there’s not. And especially when it comes to pinpointing a subconscious bias of ourselves, the task is nearly impossible to do without the willingness to be vulnerable and to listen to the words and judge the action of your peers impartially. But removing implicit biases has been proven possible with training and practice. And if it’s possible, then it should certainly be worthy of trying.