On Martin Luther King Day, it is appropriate to consider where discrimination and bias sit in our own lives. More often than ever, I find the subjects of privilege, income inequality and social segregation entering into my conversations. Thanks to the bravery, persistence and pluck of groups like Black Lives Matter, issues previously visible only to those negatively affected are showing up in unavoidable ways to everyone. As a progressive of good will, I ask myself how I can make a difference in calling out institutional racism and discrimination. I try to listen more than talk and to be mindful of seeing the world through the eyes of others.
What I think is most important for people of good will to understand is that we are quite likely to carry biases in spite of ourselves. Implicit bias, by definition, is bias held by people who do not believe themselves to be biased. If you have never taken the Implicit Associations Test or learned about the results (75 percent of its millions of takers show a preference for white people over brown skinned people) then I recommend you do so. A fabulous resource is the Book “Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People” by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, the originators of the IAT.
Two points that Banaji and Greenwald make are particularly important for us to remember on this day. First, that people who believe themselves to be free of prejudice are unlikely to discriminate by a hostile or harmful act towards someone who is different from them, and far more likely to discriminate by showing preference towards someone who is like them. This is a simple premise with a diabolically powerful message; we can assure ourselves we are not discriminatory because we are doing nothing bad. The illusion of “only helping” is an extremely sustainable one if we don’t recognize the actual problem — our very human tendency to break the world into “us” and “them” and to favor “us” without thinking. Even our most altruistic acts may contribute to unintentionally feeding the advantage of the in group and sustaining social inequity.
The second point the authors make presents the only credible antidote I have found to scrutinizing implicit bias. It comes from the work of Psychologist Daniel Kahneman who posits two types of thinking; System 1 thinking, which is fast and helps us function on a day to day basis but can be inaccurate, and System 2 thinking which is more deliberate, concentrated and accurate. System 1 thinking is at work when we get home from the grocery store and smack ourselves on the forehead because we have forgotten the very item we went to the store to purchase in the first place. System 2 is the brain working on a substantive problem, writing a blog post or analyzing data. From this concept emerges the idea of a “conscious pause.” Before making an important decision or judgement about someone, particularly if it has the possibility of benefiting someone, we need to move out of our System 1 brain and into System 2. We need to ask ourselves if the volunteer commitment we are about to make or the donation check we are about to write or the job offer we are about to make arises out of in-group favoritism. If we truly are committed to overriding our biases, our blind spots, our quick conclusion that we are doing the right thing must be subject to scrutiny. Pause. Think about it. Reflect. Ask hard questions, or even better, ask someone else to challenge you. In field studies of bias, self-scrutiny actually made a difference in whether race or gender were factors in critical decision making.
Daily we can find opportunities to be outraged by bigotry, discrimination and xenophobia. Calling out these things when we see them in our public figures and institutions is essential. Today, though, remember to look inside, and to remember the insidious nature of our own, inadvertent, but pernicious bias.