Guest Opinions

We need to be explicit when we address our implicit biases

Demonstrators protest in April after two black men were arrested for sitting at a Starbucks cafe without ordering anything in Philadelphia.
Demonstrators protest in April after two black men were arrested for sitting at a Starbucks cafe without ordering anything in Philadelphia. AP

As a neuroscientist who studies implicit cognition, or unconscious influences of knowledge, perception and memory on our social judgments and actions, I have been following the news that Starbucks will be training its employees on implicit bias. After two black men waiting for a friend were arrested in a Philadelphia store, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson announced that store managers worldwide will undergo training May 29 to understand the effect of implicit bias in customer interactions.

The Implicit Association Test, or IAT, was developed by Banaji and Greenwald in 1998. Anyone can take the online test. It uses the deceptively simple tool of reaction time to measure unconscious bias, or aspects of our mind we may be unaware of. While taking the race version of the test, participants must rapidly categorize images of black and white faces with positive and negative adjectives. In one condition, white faces are paired with positive words and black faces with negative words; in a second condition, white faces are paired with negative words and black faces with positive words. If a participant has relatively more positive associations with one group than the other, these two conditions will vary in difficulty.

On average, there is a speed advantage to categorize white faces with positive words vs. black faces with positive words (regardless of race). Evidence shows up on brain scans, too: People with an implicit pro-white bias have stronger activation in the fear areas of their brain when viewing black faces vs. white.

What is even more interesting is that implicit biases show up in children as young as 3, and their patterns are indistinguishable from adults. Researcher Dunham suggests that this is due to an automatic preference from a very young age for our own “in group” as well as an implicit preference for the higher-status group.

However, the IAT is limited in that it measures only what’s in our head. It can’t predict active acts of discrimination. But, as seen with ongoing instances of police aggression against black citizens and this most recent Starbucks incident, society seems to be taking a harder look at what bias looks like — both internally and externally. As IAT co-founder Greenwald said himself, “taking the IAT to discover one’s own implicit biases does nothing to remove those implicit biases.”

So is all hope lost?

A first step is having explicit conversations with each other and our children about race, bias and stereotypes; and point out the advantages or disadvantages we have in society due to skin color. Starting at your child’s birth, read pro-social stories with human characters of all different colors. Research shows that children are better able to absorb pro-social lessons from storybooks with humans. Being aware of your own implicit biases is a start, but it’s part of a long journey, and the journey begins with each one of us.

Boise resident Patty Costello has a Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Minnesota. She is the program director for the undergraduate psychology program at Walden University. She authored the children’s picture book “Catalina and the King’s Wall.”
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