Image by Harold Guevara
How do you defeat unconscious bias? First, you need to know what it is.
Unconscious bias (also known as implicit bias) refers to unconscious forms of discrimination and stereotyping based on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, ability, age, etc. It differs from cognitive bias, a predictable pattern of mental errors resulting in us misperceiving reality. These are two separate and distinct concepts despite cognitive biases sometimes leading to discriminatory thinking and feeling patterns.
Cognitive biases are common across humankind and relate to the particular wiring of our brains. In contrast, unconscious bias refers to perceptions between different groups and are specific to the society in which we live. For example, I bet you don’t care or even think about whether someone is a noble or a commoner. Yet, that distinction was fundamentally important a few centuries ago across Europe. Another example – geographic instead of across time: Most US-based people don’t have strong feelings about Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims. Yet, this distinction is significant in many parts of the world.
Unconscious Bias and Prejudice
In my speeches, I often discuss that black Americans suffer from police harassment and violence at a much higher rate than white people. In response, some participants (usually white) occasionally defend the police by claiming that black people are more violent and likely to break the law than whites. They thus attribute police harassment to black people’s internal characteristics (implying they deserve the treatment), not to the external context of police behavior.
In reality – as I point out in my response to these folks – research shows that black people are harassed and harmed by police at a much higher rate for the same kind of activity. A white person walking by a cop, for example, is statistically much less likely to be stopped and frisked than a black one. At the other end of things, a white person resisting arrest is much less likely to be violently beaten than a black person. In other words, statistics show that, at least to a large extent, the higher rate of harassment and violence against black Americans by police is due to police officers’ prejudice.
However, I am careful to clarify that this discrimination is not necessarily intentional. Sometimes, it is deliberate, with white police officers consciously believing that black Americans deserve much more scrutiny than whites. At other times, the discriminatory behavior results from unconscious, implicit thought processes that the police officer would not consciously endorse.
Not Limited to One Race
Interestingly, research shows that many black police officers have an unconscious prejudice against other black people. Specifically, they perceive them in a more negative light than white people when evaluating potential suspects. This unconscious bias carried by many – not all – black police officers helps show that such prejudices come – at least to a significant extent – from internal cultures. They germinate within police departments, rather than pre-existing racist attitudes before someone joins a police department.
The Need to Address Internal Cultures
We often perpetuate such cultures by internal norms (such as poorly-written job descriptions), policies, and training procedures. So any police department wishing to address unconscious bias needs to address internal culture first and foremost, rather than attributing racism to individual officers. In other words, it is not enough to say it’s a few bad apples in a barrel of overall good ones. Instead, we must recognize that implicit bias is a systemic issue. Therefore, we must first fix the structure and joints of the barrel.
The crucial thing to highlight is that there is no shame or blame in implicit bias. After all, that bias, is not stemming from any fault in the individual. This no-shame approach decreases the fight, freeze, or flight defensive response among reluctant audiences. Just as important, it helps them hear and accept the issue.
With these additional statistics and discussion of implicit bias, we consider the issue generally settled. Still, from their subsequent behavior, it’s clear that some of these audience members don’t immediately internalize this evidence. It’s much more comforting for them to feel that police officers are right and anyone targeted by police deserves it. In turn, they are reluctant to accept the need to focus more efforts on protecting black Americans from police violence.
The issue of unconscious bias doesn’t match their intuitions, and thus they reject this concept. This, despite extensive and strong evidence for its pervasive role in policing. It takes a series of subsequent follow-up conversations and interventions to move the needle. A single training is rarely sufficient, both in my experience and according to research.
Defeating Unconscious Bias
This example of how to fight unconscious bias illustrates broader patterns you need to follow to address unconscious bias and make the best people decisions. After all, when we simply follow our intuitions, our gut reactions lead us to make poor judgment choices.
- Instead, you need to start by learning about the kind of problems that result from unconscious bias yourself, so that you know what you’re trying to address.
- Then, you must stress that there should be no shame or guilt in acknowledging our instincts.
- Next, openly discuss the dangers of following their intuitions to build up an emotional investment into changing behaviors.
- Lastly, convey the right mental habits that will help them make the best choices.
Remember, one-time training will not defeat unconscious bias. This effort takes a long-term commitment and constant discipline. Get started today.