Everyone makes judgement calls instinctively — whether they realize it or not.
Implicit biases are attitudes and beliefs we have on an unconscious or subconscious level that shape the way we view the world — and people — around us. Unlike explicit bias, which refers to when we are consciously aware of our feelings and attitudes, implicit bias can seep into our worldview without us knowing.
When it comes to race, implicit bias can have detrimental effects.
“Everybody has implicit biases and they can influence our behaviours and cause us to discriminate in spite of our best intentions,” said Jack Glaser, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and collaborator with the team at Project Implicit, a non-profit that aims to educate people about hidden biases.
Testing for implicit bias
It’s important for people to understand their implicit biases so they can actively acknowledge and work to challenge them, experts say.
That’s why social psychologist Tony Greenwald developed a test to determine implicit biases back in the ’90s called the Implicit Association Test (IAT).
“I was looking for a way to measure attitudes without asking people what their attitudes are,” Greenwald told Global News.
“I — and many others — think that self-report measures of attitude are often quite distorted because people will, particularly when they are being asked whether they have prejudices, deny it, when, in fact, they may have prejudices.”
Greenwald, who has recently retired from his role as a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, said that bias tests can help people determine implicit feelings about people of various races, genders and sexualities.
Project Implicit has publicly available bias tests online that are free to access. These tests measure implicit attitudes and beliefs that people are either unwilling or unable to report by asking them to pair two concepts, like “young and good” or “elderly and good.”
When it comes to race, the test measures how you respond to different images of Black and white people and categorize them using certain letters on your keyboard. Then, the test switches and you are tasked with categorizing words associated with “good” and “bad,” like “joy” and “horrible,” with corresponding keys on your keyboard.
The test then changes again, and categories begin to mix: you must categorize photos of Black people and white people with corresponding keys as well as words as “good” or “bad.”
Researchers say a person’s reaction time and responses to these questions can say a lot about their implicit biases and what Greenwald calls an “automatic preference” to either white people, Black people or somewhere in between.
“The reality of unconscious bias is you can’t just think really hard and they pop up; we have to be confronted with circumstances that help bring the unconscious to consciousness,” said Pamela Fuller, the leader of inclusion and bias at workplace training company FranklinCovey.
“The IAT is a good tool to at least explore where you might have some bias.”
Challenging implicit racial bias
Acknowledging and learning about biases is important, but people must understand how they affect their own behaviour so they can challenge them, said Howard Stevenson, a clinical psychologist and professor of urban education at the University of Pennsylvania.
When it comes to race, unaddressed biases can have incredibly harmful repercussions and lead to racist behaviour.
“The idea that our behaviour is influenced by our subconscious implicit biases has found more evidence over the last couple of decades,” Stevenson said.
“There are times people will surprise themselves, say, during a racial encounter. They might actually say something and then be surprised that it came out of their mouth — it happens a lot. In fact, people will basically say, ‘I don’t know how that could have happened.'”
While the notion of an IAT is helpful for some to become aware of their implicit views, Stevenson said, what’s vital is unpacking how these biases form and the consequences of them.
Stevenson and his colleagues have been researching something called “racial socialization” which addresses the fact that everybody is socialized around race, he said. Stevenson says this work begins by asking people to think back to specific moments or incidents in their lives where they heard messages or conversations around race.
Even if someone initially says they did not grow up noticing such messaging, with some time and introspection, they often recall certain events.
“People will remember things that they had forgotten or repressed, but their actual going back and having to talk about it not only triggers memories, but the body also has certain responses,” Stevenson said.
“And in many respects, that’s my argument for saying: You have been surrounded by racial politics, but you were in some respects socialized not to see them.
“It’s hard to be in this world and not see racism or see racial matters unless you are taught how to not see them.”
When people can see their biases, they can work to challenge or unlearn them. Conversations around race and racism are difficult, he said, but they must happen for people and societies to move forward.
In policing, addressing implicit bias is crucial, said Glaser, who has also worked with police forces to understand implicit biases in law enforcement.
Protests against anti-Black racism and discrimination against Indigenous Peoples continue across the world and here in Canada, sparking widespread conversations around police brutality and the way law enforcement treat people of colour and those experiencing mental illness.
“We know that police officers, like most other people, have an implicit association, meaning a stereotype in their heads that resides outside of their consciousness — and maybe also is conscious to some of them as well — associating Black people with crime and weapons and violence,” Glaser said.
Glaser said that research shows that even if police forces have policies in place that prohibit racial profiling or using excessive force, implicit biases will still exist unless they are properly addressed.
“You need to put in place practices that are going to reduce the likelihood that you’ll see racial bias in policing,” he said.
“That might include changing the incentives about what officers are trying to do, making it less important to make a lot of traffic stops and searches and arrests, and to focus on specific individual behaviour of suspects and stay away from casting broad nets.”
More information about anti-Black racism in Canada:
Racial profiling and racial discrimination against Black people is a systemic problem in Canada, according to numerous reports and experts.
Black Canadians account for 3.5 per cent of the country’s total population, according to the latest government statistics, but are over-represented in federal prisons by more than 300 per cent, as found by the John Howard Society.
A Black person is nearly 20 times more likely than a white person to be involved in a fatal shooting by Toronto police, a 2018 report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission found, and Black Canadians are more likely to experience inappropriate or unjustified searches during encounters and unnecessary charges or arrests. They’re also more likely to be held overnight by police than white people, according to the John Howard Society.
Black Canadians experience disparities in health outcomes compared to the population at large, according to research from the Black Health Alliance. The Black Experiences in Health Care Symposium Report notes that they often face barriers and discrimination within health-care systems. Black people report higher rates of diabetes and hypertension compared to white people, which researchers published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health say may stem from experiences of racism in everyday life.
Indigenous Peoples, also experience poorer health outcomes and face discrimination within health-care systems and by police. According to Statistics Canada, Indigenous Peoples represent about five per cent of the population in Canada, and are grossly over-represented in the prison system — Indigenous men made up 28 per cent of male admissions to custody in 2017-18. According to the John Howard Society, Indigenous men are nearly eight times more likely to be murdered. According to the Canadian Department of Justice, Indigenous women and girls are more than three times more likely to experience sexual assault and violence and are between six and 12 times more likely to be killed, depending on the province or territory.