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Implicit bias, time to face ourselves

We have come to know the Native American tribe as the Apache, a word from the Zuni language that means “the enemy”, but they called themselves Ndee, meaning “the people”. Most human groups have defined themselves in relationship to “the other”, and have used names to categorize those who do not belong to the group, while assuming those who are part of the clan, need no differentiator.

We are the people, those, who are different from me, are the strangers or the enemy.

This generalization has driven the development of human society until today, it is part of human nature. It has been a necessary mechanism to manage our environment and information. It is the way in which our ancestors were able to defend and protect their groups in uncertain times.

But society has changed, and our knowledge about other people and ourselves has increased. Today, in our globalized world, where voluntary and forced migration has transformed our societies to include a great diversity of nationalities, religions, ethnicities and race, unfortunately those same basic impulses still play a major role in how we categorize people. But we are not always aware of them.

When Hillary Clinton mentioned in one of the presidential debates that “implicit bias is a problem for everyone, not just police”, many cried out that she was throwing a blanket statement accusing everyone of racism and prejudice. What many of her critics failed to see, is that there is a difference between intentional racism and prejudice, and the fact that our brains are trained to process information and make general categorizations below our level of consciousness, implicit bias.

“Unlike explicit bias (which reflects the attitudes or beliefs that one endorses at a conscious level), implicit bias is the bias in judgment and/or behavior that results from subtle cognitive processes (e.g., implicit attitudes and implicit stereotypes) that often operate at a level below conscious awareness and without intentional control”, explains the National Center for State Courts.

We, as humans, tend to feel more comfortable with people who look or sound like us. That is human nature. It is not racism. It is a fact.

In fact, this is a tendency that holds true no matter the race. For example, in a Pew Research study they found that “48 percent of white respondents exhibited slight to strong bias toward white people, while 45 percent of black respondents showed a slight to strong bias toward black people”, as reported by an article in Wired magazine.

The media plays a big role in the way in which we perpetuate our internal unconscious bias.

“A new study by Color of Change found that, while 51% of the people arrested for violent crime in New York City are black, 75% of the news reports about such arrests highlighted black alleged perpetrators.

Each time we see a black person on TV who is linked with a violent crime or portrayed as a criminal, the neurons in our brain that link blackness with criminality fire.”, says Dr. Lisa Wade, a professor of psychology.

“These associations, unfortunately, are pre-conscious. Those neurons fire faster than we can suppress them with our conscious mind. So, even if we believe in our heart-of-hearts that these connections are unfair or untrue, our unconscious is busy making the associations anyway. Biased reporting, in other words, changes the minds of viewers, literally”, she said.

We all have bias. The problem for our community comes when we decide to pay a blind eye to our internal tendencies and refuse to recognize our own unintentional biases. One way in which this can play out is in the way we describe people, particularly when we are referring to those who do not look like us and who may look suspicious to us.

In analyzing our own internalized bias, it is helpful to become aware of when do we use racial or ethnic descriptors to refer to a person. Do we normally say, “Oh, Agnes, the white lady who just moved across the street”, or are we most likely to point out “Yes, Sanji, the Indian engineer who works in the other cubicle”.  When or how we choose to describe people is based on what we consider to be normal, or standard. We tend to assign descriptors who people who are extremely overweight or underweight, those who have a disability, those who come from a different country, or have a different color skin from us.

Where it gets complicated is when we talk about crime subjects. Because our words help shape the perception of the environment in which we live, choosing to NOT describe a person by their race, while choosing to use a racial description in a similar situation, can perpetuate our own internalized bias towards one group. Most likely we do not do it on purpose. But we must become aware of this if our intent is to become fair and objective individuals.

When police use racial identifiers to aid them in identifying a subject, it is usually accompanied by a whole list of other identifiers. This is standard practice and can help catch those accused of crime. But it only works under certain circumstances.

If we were to say, “A black male, 6 feet tall, wearing a red hoodie”. We are describing a huge group of people. And who do we define black in this case?

Imagine we were to use the same principle with a different group. Keith Woods, on, has a great article about the language of race. He writes:

“We don’t see the phrase “Irish-looking man” in the newspaper, though red hair and pale skin are common Irish characteristics. Would a picture come to mind if a TV anchor said, “The suspect appeared to be Italian”? Couldn’t many of us conjure an image if the police said they were looking for a middle-aged man described as “Jewish-looking.”

There are good reasons those descriptions never see the light of day. They generalize. They stereotype. And they require that everyone who hears the description has the same idea of what those folks look like. All Irish-Americans don’t look alike. Why, then, accept a description that says a suspect was African-American?”.

Perhaps as you read this you will think we are being overly sensitive. But I would just like to do a mental exercise and challenge you to think, when do you use racial or ethnic descriptors and when you don´t?

Describing people by their race, or what makes them different from us, is not inherently wrong. It does not make you racist. We do all belong to different groups, and we should be proud of our heritage. But we should also become aware of our natural tendency to identify the other, while not explicitly naming those of our own group.

Just being aware of it, makes a huge difference.

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