Reframing Racial Justice: Implicit Bias, Explained

Some people choose to commit overt, intentional acts of racism — but most are being influenced by the structures and patterns that have led them to think and act a certain way: their own implicit bias.

When we talk about racial justice we must remember that so much of what we do is quietly controlled by our unconscious mind, the set of cognitive processes beyond our conscious awareness. While your conscious mind reads this sentence, your unconscious mind reacts instinctively to the words on the page. When you hear a bark, it automatically prompts you to think of a dog. And when you see a stranger, it makes quick judgements about who they might be.

Five women are gathered in a room for a meeting. Their attention draw towards the woman leading the meeting at the front of the room. One women is taking notes using a pen and paper while another uses an iPad.

Our minds are constantly feeding us impulses, recognizing patterns, influencing our emotions, forming habits and collecting biases all without our conscious input. All of us have bias – and that’s why we need to talk about it. Having bias doesn’t make us bad people, but it does expose a need to explore racism beyond intentional acts of discrimination which are easier to recognize.

In this article we’ll answer the questions:

  1. What is implicit bias?
  2. How does implicit bias show up at work?
  3. How can you recognize and reduce your own biases without shame or judgement?

What is Implicit Bias?

Within the context of racial justice, when we refer to implicit bias we’re addressing our hidden or unintentional preferences for a group based on their social identity. As a result of both internal patterns (human nature) and external patterns (socialization) our minds make quick associations that help us navigate the world and stay safe. Without the quiet work of our unconscious mind we would struggle to make the mental shortcuts needed to quickly understand and act on the world around us. But what happens when we apply these quick shortcuts to people?

Sometimes our unconscious thinking patterns lead us to make unfair judgements about people based on stereotypes attributed to their social group. Or they can lead us to subconsciously feel hostile or unsure about people who seem unfamiliar. This is implicit bias: the unconscious thoughts, feelings, patterns and impulses that our minds draw on as we interact with others.

Having bias is not a conscious choice, but we can make the conscious decision to acknowledge and correct it as needed.

How Does Implicit Bias Show Up at Work?

What are the things, actions and ways of being that you associate with familiarity? Who are the groups that make you feel safe? Who are the people who feel like you? Although you may not be consciously aware, these feelings affect your actions at work, in school and in our communities.

These implicit biases affect who you feel inclined to help, hire, promote and include. They also impact who makes you feel uncomfortable, who you distrust and who you choose to avoid.

Five women are gathered around a table for a meeting. Their attention draw towards the woman leading the meeting at the front of the room. Some women are taking notes on pen and paper while another uses an iPad.

For example, in most of Canada and the United States the cultural bias towards English results in resumes with anglicized names being favoured over non-English sounding names. You might imagine how easily this can lead to discriminatory hiring practices. When enough people share similar biases, their choices become embedded in the systems that govern our communities. So while implicit biases may play out in subtler actions like micro-inequities at work, they can also compound into massive systemic failings for minoritized groups.

Community is a basic human need. When we don’t feel a sense of belonging, we often begin to question our self worth or hide parts of ourselves to try to fit in. But because certain groups are already marginalized in society, they tend to face the brunt of negative effects from implicit bias. And these same marginalized groups can face chronic feelings of exclusion because of the biases embedded in our minds and social systems.

Implicit Bias: A Community Member’s Story

Unfortunately, when marginalized people try to address these systems, things don’t always get easier — sometimes they get worse. A marginalized member of our community shared the ongoing impact of frequent micro-inequities they faced in a previous position.

In their own words, “Imposter syndrome makes it sound like it’s your fault that you have some issue, right? But it’s not your fault cause it’s something that was put on you. External factors that created this feeling of self doubt where you constantly question yourself.”

Their self doubt was brought on by years of internalizing comments from a white manager who would often undermine, embarrass or question the intelligence of marginalized staff members. They faced regular pushback against their ideas — only to have them adopted by white staff members who would be credited for their work. Their ability to speak English was questioned, not because of their skill, but because they carried an “ethnic” name. And when taking on new tasks, their manager would often initially suggest they were unable to handle it, only to be impressed by their work later on.

While all of this showed a clear and unspoken system of bias in their workplace, when they spoke up they were told they were being “too sensitive.” When they scheduled a meeting to draw attention to how some actions contributed to an uncomfortable environment for marginalized staff—like a white employee being quickly promoted above more veteran staff, including the marginalized woman who’d trained her—their manager took offense and threatened them professionally. That conversation left them feeling scared and vulnerable.

“I couldn’t talk to anyone about it because then it puts me at risk. I felt like I was walking on eggshells all the time.”

The months that followed were marked by the heavy emotional toll of being regularly underestimated, denied promotions and subjected to embarrassing comments. Even when their employer undertook a diversity training as suggested by the marginalized employee, they were excluded from both the planning and execution. Eventually, another employee advised them that it might just be best to stop resisting the “office culture”. But they couldn’t — so they left.

Unfortunately, this experience echoes that of many people in marginalized communities who must navigate the complicated terrain of identity, power and implicit bias at work. If the goal of racial justice is to foster a society where—regardless of identity—we all feel a sense of belonging, then we need to work to address our individual biases and the influence they have on the institutions we are part of.

Four women are gathered around a table reviewing a document. Two of them are holding pens and appear to be making edits.

How to Recognize and Reduce Your Own Biases Without Shame or Judgement

A simple practice to begin recognizing your implicit bias is to begin to notice and question your assumptions about marginalized social groups. You can do this by taking the time to learn and understand the history that informs your culture and the institutions you rely on. Reflect on who was or was not traditionally included and listen to marginalized voices to gain broader historical perspectives.

Having bias doesn’t make us bad people, but it does invite us into the work of understanding our own patterns to identify those that are helpful and those that aren’t.

Be ready to meet yourself with compassion on your JEDI (justice, equity, diversity and inclusion) journey. You may make mistakes along the way, but your commitment to the work outweighs your imperfection.

Now you know what to do… what’s next?

Education will always be a key component in advancing racial justice, and compassion will always be a key component in education. Anima Leadership believes in racial justice education that allows us to champion compassionate and inclusive leadership.

For more on how you can transform your workplace into a more inclusive environment, join our Deep Diversity Course. It’s available as online self-directed training, instructor-led group webinars and fully customizable in-house courses. Register today to take the next step on your JEDI journey!

Anima Leadership

Anima Leadership believes in a compassionate approach to racial justice where everyone can feel like they matter and belong.

Since 2007, we have worked with thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations teaching, consulting and coaching transformative change. Our award-winning training programs and innovative measurement tools will help us journey with you from diversity basics to advanced belonging.

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