By Akemi Matsumoto
APACEvotes and APACE Board Member
Faculty Emeritus, Bellevue College
There has been a lot of talk about implicit bias because of the recent incident at Starbucks in Philadelphia, when Dante Robinson and Rashon Nelson were arrested for merely sitting at a table waiting for a business meeting without purchasing anything.
So what exactly is implicit bias? If our parents have done their job of socializing us, they have taught us several assumptions about groups of people, a shortcut to interacting with others because we do not have the time to meet each person as an individual.
They taught us the norms of our society. As we mature, we take that socialization and mold it into our own system of beliefs about others. We accept some of the assumptions our parents and society have taught us, and we reject others. The bad thing is, unless we are aware of our assumptions, we often accept the biases we have been taught and operate unconsciously. The good thing is that these biases can be changed.
Our society is deeply embedded with the bias that some races are superior to others. America’s racism is reinforced daily by media images and systems of power that reinforce white culture. For instance, white culture defines “professionalism” in most workplaces and narrowly dictates how people must dress and what vocabulary and volume they use when they speak. White culture is the dominant culture in our society. This systemically benefits white people at the expense of people of color.
In order to change the systemic racism in America, we have to work on many levels. At the individual level, we must be aware of our biases — be motivated to be more equitable and interrupt our automatic assumptions, replacing our stereotypes with more accurate and factual information. Treating everyone the same sounds fair, but what it does is place those not raised in White American culture at a disadvantage, because what is considered the “right” way is defined by those in power and does not acknowledge that there is more than one culture in America.
At the societal level, we must look at the cultural biases against people of color embedded in our public policies and institutions that create barriers to success. Who created these policies and institutions and what culture is represented by them? We still live in different realities — the different reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdict demonstrated that most vividly.
So, are you motivated to look within yourself at your biases? Harvard University developed a series of tests to help you see where you might have stereotypes about others you may be unaware of. (Take the test at: implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html.) I took some of them myself, confidently assuming I was not prejudiced about Asians, weight, Arab Muslims, or religion. I was surprised at my results and am working on my automatic assumptions to slow them down and ask myself if my gut reaction is based on evidence or is a product of my socialization.
Starbucks originally announced it would shut down all its stores for a two-hour training session on implicit bias and it fired the manager at the Philadelphia store who called the police. Two hours can never undo centuries of deeply rooted racism that is embedded in American culture and in our upbringing. Since then, Starbucks has listened to the outcry to their one-time training plan and have announced they will have a long-term, multi-phased training effort on anti-bias for their employees. Even this expanded training will merely touch the tip of the iceberg. However, it is one small step in interrupting a systemic, mostly invisible culture of racism and prejudice. Racism stays in place because it is unconscious and invisible. We need to surface the problem and continue the dialogue. Ending racism requires more than just training. It is an ongoing process that requires a commitment from each of us to regularly challenge our assumptions.