Implicit Bias and the Hard Road to Equality

We all have ideas about race, even the most open-minded among us. And those ideas have the power to bias our perception and our actions — despite our best intentions.

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I walked in through a sea of navy-blue uniforms. The auditorium was filled to capacity, with 132 sworn members of the Oakland Police Department sitting motionless with perfect posture: erect, arms crossed. As I walked down the aisle to take the stage, I could not see their faces, but I already knew what they were thinking.

The road to this particular presentation was a long one. The police force was still recovering from a major scandal that had left a legacy of distrust in the community. I was just wrapping up a two-year report that was about to be released to the public — one of the final steps required by the federal oversight team brought in to investigate extensive civil rights violations by members of this department — and I didn’t want the police to be blindsided by our
findings. Many in the community were calling for an end to racial profiling. They wanted fair treatment. They were demanding justice. Many in the police department felt they were delivering that justice every day — sometimes at great sacrifice. I wanted to help the officers to understand the insidious ways in which implicit bias could act on human decision-making, despite the officers’ noble intentions and deliberate efforts.

I decided to veer off my usual script, with its statistics, scientific facts, and studies, and share instead a personal story.

I explained that, some years ago, my son Everett and I were on a plane. He was five years old, wide-eyed, and trying to take it all in. He looked around and saw a black passenger. He said, “Hey, that guy looks like Daddy.” I looked at the man, and truth be told, he did not look anything like Daddy — not in any way. I looked around for anyone else Everett might be referring to. But there was only one black man on the plane.

I couldn’t help but be struck by the irony: the race researcher having to explain to her own black child that not all black people look alike. But then I paused and thought about the fact that kids see the world differently from adults. Maybe Everett was seeing something that I missed. I decided to take another look.

I checked the guy’s height. No resemblance there. He was several inches shorter than my husband. I studied his face. There was nothing in his features that looked familiar. I looked at his skin color. No similarity there either. Then I took a look at his hair. This man had dreadlocks flowing down his back. Everett’s father is bald.

I gathered my thoughts and turned to my son, prepared to lecture him in the way that I might inform an unobservant student in my class. But before I could begin, he looked up at me and said, “I hope that man doesn’t rob the plane.”

Maybe I didn’t get that right. “What did you say?” I asked him, wishing I had not heard what I heard. And he said it again, as innocently and as sweetly as you can imagine from a bright-eyed boy trying to understand the world: “I hope he doesn’t rob the plane.”

I was on the brink of being upset. “Why would you say that?” I asked as gently as I could. “You know Daddy wouldn’t rob a plane.”

“Yes,” he said. “I know.”

“Well, why did you say that?” This time my voice dropped an octave and turned sharp.

Everett looked up at me with a really sad face and said very solemnly, “I don’t know why I said that. I don’t know why I was thinking that.”

Just telling that story reminded me of how much that moment hurt. I took a deep breath, and when I looked back out at the crowd in the auditorium, I saw they were no longer uniformed police officers, and I was no longer a university researcher. We were parents, unable to protect our children from a world that is often bewildering and frightening, a world that influences them so profoundly, so insidiously, and so unconsciously that they — and we — don’t know why we think the way we do.

After I finished my presentation, one officer came up to me: “Your story about your son on the plane reminded me of an experience I had on the street. It’s something I haven’t thought about in a long time,” the officer told me.

“I was out one day, working undercover,” the officer said, “and I saw a guy, at a distance, who didn’t look right. This guy looked similar to me — you know, black, same build, same height. But this guy had a scruffy beard, unkempt hair, ripped clothes, and he looked like he was up to no good. The guy began approaching me, and as he was getting closer, I had a feeling that he had a gun on him. Something’s off with this guy, I thought. This dude ain’t right.

I couldn’t help but but struck by the irony: the race researcher having to explain to her own black child that not all black people look alike.

“So the guy is coming down a hill, near the front of a nice office building — one of those big office towers with glass walls. And as the guy is approaching, I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was armed and dangerous.

“As I got closer to the building, I lost him for a second and I began to feel panicked. Suddenly I see the guy again, but this time he is inside the office building. I could see the guy clearly through the glass wall. He was walking inside the building — in the same direction and at the same pace as I was walking.

“Something was wrong. When I quickened my pace, I could see him quicken his pace. And finally, I decided to stop abruptly, turn, and confront the guy.

“He stops too, and I look at him face-to-face,” the officer said to me. “And when I look in his eyes, a shock went through me. I realized that I was staring at myself. I was the person I feared. I was staring at my own reflection through the mirrored wall. That entire time, I was tailing myself; I was profiling myself.”

That’s the kind of power that our unconscious biases can exert without our awareness or permission.

 

Implicit bias is not a new way of calling someone a racist. In fact, you don’t have to be a racist at all to be influenced by it. Implicit bias is a kind of distorting lens that’s a product of both the architecture of our brain and the disparities in our society.

We all have ideas about race, even the most open-minded among us. Those ideas have the power to bias our perception, our attention, our memory, and our actions — all despite our conscious awareness or deliberate intentions.

Bias can lead to racial disparities in everything from preschool suspensions to corporate leadership. And the disparities themselves then bolster our biases. For example, knowing that a disproportionate amount of violent crime is committed by young black men can bias judgments about black people more generally. That affects how blacks are seen in all manner of situations — whether sitting in a classroom or a coffee shop, whether leading a Fortune 500 company or fighting a California wildfire. The stereotypes shadow them.

People can hold biases based on all sorts of characteristics — skin color, age, weight, ethnic origin, accent, disability, height, gender. I talk a lot about race, specifically about blacks and whites, because those two groups have been studied the most by researchers investigating bias. And because the racial dynamics between blacks and whites are dramatic, consequential, and enduring. In the United States, those tensions over centuries have even set the tone for how other social groups are regarded.

Confronting implicit bias requires us to look in the mirror. To understand the influence of implicit racial bias requires us to stare into our own eyes — much as the undercover police officer who found that he had been tailing himself had done — to face how readily stereotypes and unconscious associations can shape our reality. By acknowledging the distorting lens of fear and bias, we move one step closer to clearly seeing each other. And we move one step closer to clearly seeing the social harms — the devastation — that bias can leave in its wake. Change requires a kind of open-minded attention that is well within our reach.

Sarah Leary is one of the founders (with Chris Varelas and former CEO Nirav Tolia) of Nextdoor, an online social networking service that serves as a sort of giant chat room for individual neighborhoods. Tens of millions of people use it, across the country and around the world. Its mission statement conveys its high-minded goal: to provide a trusted platform where neighbors work together to build stronger, safer, happier communities.

Nextdoor aims to offer an online space where people can feel comfortable connecting with neighbors they’ve never met, whether they’re looking for a lost dog or a reliable babysitter, or warning neighbors about a coyote roaming the block or a stranger who seems out of sync with the prevailing demographic. It’s that last option that caused the trouble that brought me to Nextdoor’s conference room.

At that time, Nextdoor was working well in more than 185,000 neighborhoods in the United States and another 25,000 around the world. But its “crime and safety” category has become the problem child. There were too many posts with racist overtones, messages that labeled blacks and Latinos “suspicious” for walking down a street, sitting in a car, talking on a cellphone, knocking on a door. When an Oakland-area news outlet wrote about the problem, Sarah and her business partners were horrified by the stories that emerged.  Instead of bringing neighbors closer together, the platform exposed raw racial dynamics that generated hurt feelings, sparked hostilities, and fueled fierce online arguments.

The Nextdoor team began scouring the site for signs of racial profiling. The number of troubling posts they found was “minuscule” for a site that channels millions of messages every day, Sarah said. “But we were of the mindset that even one of these is bad. … There was a real kind of gut check and soul-searching experience for us.

“Most people weren’t consciously racial profiling,” Sarah said. “They couldn’t even agree on what it was. They just knew when they’d seen something that made them uncomfortable and compelled them, for safety’s sake, to share it.”

Nextdoor needed to find a way to dial back the hair-trigger impulse that makes skin color alone arouse suspicion. Her team wanted to educate, not shame or alienate users who’d stumbled into trouble with awkward or insensitive postings.

Speed is the holy grail of technology. The goal is to create an online experience for users that’s easy, quick, and fluid, allowing them to express themselves instantly. Yet these are exactly the kinds of conditions that lead us to rely on subconscious bias.

There were too many posts with racist overtones, messages that labeled blacks and Latinos “suspicious” for walking down a street, sitting in a car, talking on a cellphone, knocking on a door.

To curb racial profiling on the platform, they had to contemplate slowing people down. Research supports the notion that raising the issue of race and discrimination explicitly can lead people to be more open-minded and act more fairly, particularly when they have time to reflect on their choices.

The posting process was changed to require users to home in on behavior, pushing them past the “If you see something, say something” mindset and forcing them to think more critically: If you see something suspicious, say something specific.

Adding friction to the process slowed things down a bit, but it did not lead to the huge drop-off in users that industry observers had predicted. What it did do was reduce the incidence of racial profiling: Nextdoor’s tracking suggests it is down by more than 75 percent.

The approach offers benefits beyond reducing neighborhood animosity. That friction and the awareness it generates may make people more willing and better equipped to think and talk frankly about race. Conversations about racial issues in interracial spaces can be uncomfortable. It’s no wonder people tend to avoid them. White people don’t want to have to worry that something they say will come out wrong and they’ll be accused of being racist. And minorities, on the other side of the divide, don’t want to have to wonder if they’re going to be insulted by some tone-deaf remark.

Nextdoor can’t make the angst go away. But benefits accrue from nudging people to talk about race and consider the harm a thoughtless judgment can do. “What I have found is that this can be a personal journey,” Sarah said. “When you raise the issue with people, at first there might be a little bit of ‘Oh, come on.’ And then you explain and you get ‘Oh yeah, that makes sense.’ I think right now most people believe ‘I can only screw this up, so maybe I shouldn’t have that conversation.’ But if people believed that having the conversations actually led to better understanding, they’d be more willing.”

She saw that happen in Oakland, when people came together to talk about their distress over racially biased posts. “I think people just get closed off, and they try to simplify the world with simple assumptions to get through their day,” she said. “But there’s a whole canopy of examples of people’s lives that are maybe more similar to yours than you assume. When you have direct connections with people who are different from you, then you develop an ability to recognize that.” So the scary black teenager in the hoodie in the dark turns out to be Jake from down the block, walking home from swim team practice.

The beauty of Nextdoor’s template is that it catches people before they’ve done anything wrong. “We try and be very mindful of going through the process of assuming good intent,” Sarah explained. “I think where it actually gets embarrassing for people is when they had good intentions and they put something out there, and they thought they were helping the neighborhood, and someone comes back and is like, ‘You’re a racist.’”

The tool gets users to stop and think before they post something that will land them in heated arguments. When there’s more thoughtfulness and less defensiveness, honest conversations about race are possible.

Ultimately, we see our neighborhoods as an extension of our homes. And home is the place where you let your guard down; where you expect to feel loved, safe, and comfortable. But living with diversity means getting comfortable with people who might not always think like you, people who don’t have the same experience or perspectives. That process can be challenging. But it might also be an opportunity to expand your horizons.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt is a professor of psychology at Stanford and co-director of SPARQ, a Stanford Center that brings together researchers and practitioners to address significant social problems.

What We Must Teach Our Children

A noted black journalist considers the difficult conversation families need to have about racial prejudice.

By Carl T. Rowano

One evening almost two years ago our two boys rushed to the television set, as they had done many evenings before, eager to watch the dinner-hour newscast. It had become a sort of game with them to see if they could greet me with the announcement of some late news development of which I was not aware. That evening, however, long before I got home, my wife, Vivien, was disturbed to see Carl Jr., then five, walk into the kitchen with tears and a look of bewilderment on his face.

“Vivi, am I really a Negro?” he asked his mother.

“Of course, you are, darling. Why do you ask?”

“On TV” — and he wiped the tears away with a shirt sleeve — “on TV the white people are kicking a Negro in the stomach.”

Vivien rushed to the TV too late to see the scenes of mob violence outside Central High School in Little Rock, or to hear the hisses and jeers and the angry interviews that were part of that telecast. Later, as we discussed ways of explaining this situation, we were thoroughly confused. Why should he identify himself so emotionally with a black newspaperman being kicked in the stomach in Little Rock? Had my boy associated the victim with his father, another black journalist?

How could we explain to our youngsters the tragedy that was unfolding in Arkansas without having their minds scarred with the notion that the desire of every white man is to kick some Negro in the stomach? Must we bar them from television news programs in order to protect them from the scorn and derision being faced by other youngsters of color?

It seems obvious that unless parents help their children to understand the basic issues, millions of Americans will grow up believing that racial conflict is inevitable — and masses of Americans, white and black, will approach maturity with a warped sense of what America and democracy are all about, or with a defeatist notion of what a civilized, educated, and religious society can do.

—“We Tell Our Children…” by Carl T. Rowano, August 22, 1959

This article is featured in the September/October 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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Comments

  1. This article really shows just how much information a young child is absorbing from his (or her) surroundings directly and subliminally that adults simply aren’t aware of, and is influencing their perceptions rightly or wrongly as a result.

    Had this incident on the plane not come up with your son, you wouldn’t have known that he had this inaccurate perception that you could educate and correct, and would have been with him for years being reinforced without either of you realizing it.

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