This article draws heavily from the research and literature being produced by the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University


First, a story. 

In the beginning of the school year, a White teacher notices one of her White students begins displaying disruptive behavior in class. At first, the teacher responds by pausing. She knows the child is aware that she noticed him, so she waits for a moment to see if he will correct his own behavior. When he doesn’t, she says, calmly but firmly, “It’s time to sit down and focus on your assignment now. Thank you.” The child makes a face, but sits down and resumes his work. 

A bit later in the school year, one of her Students of Color begins displaying a similarly boisterous, disruptive behavior in the class. The teacher responds by saying calmly but firmly, “It’s time to sit down and focus on your assignment, now. Thank you.” The child continues to squirm around a bit, but sits down and resumes his work. 

Did you notice the difference? With her White student, the teacher’s automatic response was to pause for a moment, to allow the child to notice her noticing him, and give him a chance to self-correct his own behavior. With her Student of Color, however, it just didn’t occur to her to pause in that same way. When she did speak, she used the same words and the same tone of voice with both children, and there was probably no thought of race in her awareness at all. And yet, the way she responded to the two children was different.   

“Hold on a second,” you might be thinking, “a small difference like that could be due to literally anything. Maybe the teacher’s cat woke her up six times last night and she just didn’t have the same level of patience she normally does.” Of course, you’d be right to point out that the difference in her behaviors could be due to all sorts of factors. But it is equally undeniable that race plays into situations just like this one, though it does so in ways we are not consciously aware of. Consider this: 

In a 2012 study, a group of pediatricians were given identical written case vignettes of a variety of child patients. The study found that the pediatricians who had more unconscious bias were more likely to prescribe painkillers for White patients than Black patients. Why was it easier or more obvious for them to ease the pain of the White children than it was for the Black children? 

Another study found that the more “Afrocentric” a person’s appearance (meaning that they possessed features such as dark skin, a wide nose, and full lips), the longer were the sentences they received for criminal offenses. This means that when a White person and a Black person committed exactly the same crime, if the Black person had more Afrocentric features, they were much more likely to be given a longer jail sentence than their White counterpart. 

Judges and doctors are supposed to be impartial, and yet there is a mountain of evidence revealing that none of us are impartial. The trouble is, this impartiality isn’t part of our conscious decision making process, not even a little bit. The bottom line is this:

the way we respond to people who are similar to us is different from how we respond to people who are different from us, and we almost never have conscious awareness of or control over that disparity. 

How does this happen?

The first thing to realize is that we are almost never responding to what a person actually does or says, we respond to our interpretation of what they did or said. The subconscious mind is constantly absorbing billions of bits of information about the outside world, and when we’re interacting with another human, the subconscious busily registers such things as their physical appearance, posture and body movements, breathing rate, vocal pitch and volume, the pace and cadence of their speech, even the dilation of their pupils. 

Then the subconscious has the enormous task of interpreting this vast amount of data, and it does so using an elaborate system of pre-existing associations, beliefs, stereotypes, and so on; basically bits of pre-packaged mind programming often as simple as, “If this, then that.” Once the subconscious has made some guesses as to what all the data means, it is delivered to the conscious mind. Once there, it sets off a cascade of thoughts and feelings, which in turn determine how we respond or react to the other person. 

We all have an unconscious network of beliefs, biases, and associations tied to categories of group membership such as age, gender, class, physical ability, sexual orientation, and race. So when we are interacting with someone who is different from us in one of these ways, that unconscious network will play a role in determining how we interpret the meaning of their communications and behaviors. This will then influence our thoughts and feelings, which will compel us to respond in one direction or the other.

Here’s an example of how this happens:

In scenario one, I’m standing on the sidewalk outside of a Peet’s Coffee Shop waiting for an Uber and I see a Black man running across the street. He’s not using a crosswalk, and he’s running away from me, so my head instantaneously swivels around to look behind me to see what he might be running from.

In scenario two, I’m standing on the sidewalk outside of a Peet’s Coffee Shop waiting for an Uber and I see a White man running across the street. He’s not using a crosswalk, and he’s running away from me, so my eyes look ahead of him wondering which of the cars must be his that he’s trying to get to. 

Black man running across the street = he’s running from something.

White man running across the street = he’s just trying to get to his car. 

It’s the same exact situation except for the race of the man, and yet my mind creates two wildly different interpretations of what it all means. If the man hadn’t been running away from me and instead had been running toward me, how do you think I would have likely responded? To the Black man, I would have responded with fear, maybe running away. To the White man, I probably wouldn’t have responded at all. 

This is implicit bias.

The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the University of Iowa defines Implicit Bias in this way:

“Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. 

The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance. These associations develop over the course of a lifetime beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages.  In addition to early life experiences, the media and news programming are often-cited origins of implicit associations.”

If we think back to the story of the White teacher, we see that race did not factor into her responses in any conscious way. Her implicit bias organized her responses for her in ways that she would not have been able to reflect upon consciously. And if pressed, if the disparity was pointed out to her, she would likely resist the idea that race had anything to do with it, because she literally would not be able to see how her unconscious mind has influenced her behaviors. 

The only person in this situation who is likely to notice the disparity at all is the Student of Color. He is the one who will notice that the teacher seems to respond to the White students a little bit differently than she responds to the Students of Color. These differences themselves may be minor, but they are frequent; and if the Student of Color was pressed to provide examples of one of the differences, they would be easy to dismiss with statements such as, “Your teacher must just be feeling a bit more stress than usual. But whatever it is, it obviously doesn’t have anything to do with race. She’s not a racist person.” 

Implicit bias doesn’t make you a racist in the way we ordinarily think about what it means to be a racist. You can hold strong anti-racism beliefs and even work to dismantle White supremacy in the world, and you can still have these deeply embedded, unconscious biases and assumptions about People of Color - and those will show up in little ways as a difference between how you interact with White people and with People of Color. It’s not a question of if these unconscious biases will show up, but when and how. 

Uncovering and Dismantling Implicit Bias in T-Group

One way to think about what we’re doing in T-Group is that we are slowing down the process I described before:

  1. Notice (subconscious registering of observable cues)

  2. Interpret (make meaning out of the cues using the existing network of beliefs and assumptions)

  3. Feel (the meaning will ignite both feelings in the body, as well as verbal thought processes in the conscious mind)

  4. Respond (the thoughts and feelings will be designed to compel you to respond in way that’s consistent with the meaning)

We do so by using The Feedback Process, which goes like this: 

  1. When you ________, 

  2. I made it mean _________, 

  3. And I felt _______,

  4. And my impulse is to ________. 

When we do this practice over and over again, with a lot of different people and in a lot of different kinds of interactions, we have a chance to begin noticing the patterns that emerge in the kinds of meaning we make in our interactions and with whom. And in this version of T-Group, the invitation is to ask yourself: 

How might this person’s race factor into the way I interpret what they do and say? 

How might I interpret them differently if they were more like me? 

Why this is hard.

Thing is, most of us White people really like to think that we are the Masters of Our Own Destiny. We don’t like to think that anything other than our conscious, thinking mind is running the show in our lives. To admit to having implicit bias is to admit that we aren’t 100% in control of our minds, our behaviors, or our relationships. We don’t really like that - I don’t either. It’s also just plain embarrassing to realize that some archaic old idea, lodged in the basement of our brain, is exerting an effect on us (and worse, the people around us) that we didn’t consent to. And what we hate even more is to think that something has control over us. We like that least of all. 

It is easier for people who are not you to see your implicit bias in action. It is less easy for people who share your implicit bias, but it is really easy for people who do not share your implicit bias to see that you just show up differently with White people than you do with People of Color. This means that it’s incredibly obvious from the point of view of the Person of Color, and nearly invisible to you and to other White people. 

Ultimately, this results in an unconscious, unintentional racial gaslighting. The Person of Color may point out the implicit bias and protest in some way the injustice that’s occurring, but if the White person in question cannot recognize the implicit bias, they are likely to respond by denying that it is happening at all and turn it back onto the Person of Color, saying that they are, “too sensitive,” or that they are, “imagining things.” This is gaslighting: I do something that’s offensive, and when you protest, I tell you you’re just nuts and then punish you in some way for having protested at all. 

Somehow it’s easier for us to hear it when a person in a wheelchair, for example, says, “I just want to be treated the same way as everyone else.” Since sitting down in the chair, they noticed all the large and small changes in how people responded to them - based solely on their physical ability status. The changes can be so subtle as to be imperceptible to the person who has changed: a shift in their tone of voice, in the amount of eye contact they make, in how long they’re willing to hang out and talk, in the amount of nervous hand fidgeting, even just in the pace of their breathing (people tend to breathe more quickly when they’re anxious, for example). 

So, my fellow White folks, we have been enacting implicit bias and then also gaslighting People of Color for… ever. No wonder they’re upset and no wonder they’re over it. However, it’s not their job to educate us, though many of them have dedicated their entire lives and professional careers to bringing all of this to light. Instead, it is our job to take them seriously when they give us feedback. And even before then, it is our job to tend to the hygiene of our own subconscious minds so that we’re not just puppets to our unconscious biases. 

This is hard to do, precisely because it is hard to be conscious of what you’re not conscious of. But becoming aware that you’re not aware is the first step. Being open to that idea is the first step, because it paves the way for the second step: openly and non-judgmentally reflecting upon your own experience, your own mind, and being willing to ask the question: how might implicit bias be impacting the way that I’m relating to the person across from me? 

And if you’re curious about how to de-program implicit bias from your brain, check out this Implicit Bias Cleanse.