Let’s start with a riddle: a father and son get into a car accident, and the dad dies. When the boy is about to have surgery, the surgeon says “I can’t do the surgery because this is my son.” How is this possible?
If you guessed that the boys parents are gay and the surgeon is his other dad, props to you for inclusivity, but the answer is that the mother is the surgeon. However, if you didn’t guess that it was the mother, you’re not alone. Researchers at Boston University found that 78% of participants also failed to say that the surgeon was the boy’s mother; meaning 78% of participants expressed a gender bias.
The experiment above illustrates something that everyone possesses: unconscious bias. We are all products of the media we consume, messages we hear and communities and cultures in which we grew up. Racism is a double-edged sword with both obvious and non-obvious effects. The apparent consequences are suppression and oppression of marginalized groups and outcomes on which I—as a white person—do not have the experience to comment on fully. However, there is also the other side of reinforcing prejudices in society until they become “unconscious biases.”
First, let’s acknowledge that everyone has an evolutionary preference for the familiar; it’s advantageous to stick to what you know since there is safety and comfort in familiarity. Although, sometimes that familiarity can lead to damaging rhetoric based on centuries of oppression infected throughout all facets of society. We might not even realize this, hence why biases can be implicit, or below our level of conscious awareness.
“But, Ethan, I couldn’t be racist. Some of my best friends are–,” shush. I’m not saying everyone is racist. An unconscious bias is not the same as discrimination and explicit racism. Unconscious biases are internal–immediate thoughts and feelings we have about particular subjects. An implicit bias turns into discrimination when you decide to act on them. For example, if your internal dialogue tells you that all Black people are dangerous—even though you’ve never had a violent interaction with a Black person—and you cross the street whenever you see a group of Black people walking towards you, you have turned your bias from implicit to explicit. Racism is an external affliction, but you can certainly still have racist biases without acting on them.
These harmful stereotypes already exist in society; we consume tainted media, and if our communities are devoid of diversity, we may never see different perspectives, and therefore it’s difficult to challenge harmful narratives. Thus, it is generally impossible to escape the influence of the environments in which we grew up and live, making it not plausible to live without unconscious bias. However, you can certainly take steps to reduce your unconscious biases’ influence on your behavior.
Imagine it like this: you grow up in a community where everyone bakes cakes; everyone you see on TV bakes cakes, and all you know is baking cake. Then, you move to a different city and suddenly, you’re surrounded by people who bake pies, bread or even don’t even bake at all and instead, choose to grill vegetables and meat. Now, you have two options: you can either continue to only bake cakes and associate with people who bake cakes, or you can try to bake other things—thus broadening your horizons. This is how unconscious biases work and you can make the choice to work towards getting rid of them. You can challenge your implicit biases in a few ways.
First, interact with people who are different from you as much as possible. For example, when YouTube launched the video upload feature for their mobile app, 5%-10% of videos were uploaded upside-down, baffling Google developers. They questioned if its users were simply just shooting their videos upside-down, but that was not the case. In reality, Google engineers had inadvertently designed the app for right-handed users. They never considered the fact that phones are usually rotated 180 degrees when held in a user’s left hand, and thus left-handed users were shooting videos “upside-down.” I’m assuming very few developers at Google at the time were left-handed, but if more developers had been left-handed, this likely would not have been an issue.
Second, heighten your awareness. Once Google developers realized they had designed a feature that only worked for right-handed people, I doubt they forgot this fact. They were probably hyper-aware, checking and double-checking development plans to ensure a feature would work for both right- and left-handed people, not wanting to repeat their mistake. Once you realize that an unconscious bias exists, try to become aware of every situation in which this bias manifests itself. If you are aware of the biases at play, it is far easier to challenge them.
Acknowledging your biases can be a troubling endeavor for some, especially when your biases do not align with your declared beliefs. However, unconscious biases are not set in stone, and it is possible to adopt new attitudes, even subconsciously. This process is not necessarily quick or easy, as challenging implicit biases requires a conscious, constant effort. However, acknowledging that these biases exist is a good place to start making a change.