Several years ago, when research about implicit bias — also known as unconscious bias — started to enter discussions about racism and how to undo it, I remember thinking three things.
First, the research demonstrated an obvious truth: people internalize biases picked up from society.
Second, the instrument chosen to demonstrate that truth (the Implicit Association Test) was problematic — not invalid, but so finely tuned as to appear gimmicky.
And third, blaming racial inequity on unconscious processes that could be interrupted with awareness training amounted to treating a systemic problem with individualistic analysis and remedies.
As such, it was destined to prove inadequate.
A decade or so later, I’m convinced I was right about all three.
Yes, we internalize biases that can be triggered unconsciously
First, the underlying argument of the research — that most of us carry around prejudices that can be triggered in ways we might not notice — makes sense.
Advertising works. That’s why companies spend all that money on Super Bowl ads. They know that the more you see their commercials, the more likely you’ll be to purchase their products.
And when it comes to racial stereotypes, we’ve seen those ads, so to speak, way more than we’ve seen the ones for Nike or Budweiser.
If a company can get us to buy their beer with a dozen well-devised ads, imagine how much easier it must be to get us to “buy” racial stereotypes after being exposed to them for all of our lives.
In that sense, implicit bias research reflects a truism: people internalize common stereotypes to varying degrees. Those beliefs can then be activated in situations where a stereotype is made salient.
So, in a job interview, if a Black candidate mispronounces a word or stumbles in answering a question, it might trigger a stereotype in the…