Understanding Implicit (Unconscious) Bias

July 2020

Understanding Implicit (Unconscious) Bias

As a self-described progressive white, middle-aged woman I was initially taken aback by the results of the three Implicit Association Tests I took a few years ago at Harvard’s Project Implicit website which revealed my moderate racism, moderate ageism and moderate sexism.  These results were disappointing but – as a moderate product of my white, affluent suburban upbringing within a wider racist, patriarchal and youth-valorizing culture – I also had to admit they made intuitive sense, and I decided to use my test results as motivation to learn.

I became especially interested in the neuroscience of implicit bias (everyone’s brains have it – we can’t help it!) and began investigating strategies for bringing more of my unconscious biases into my conscious awareness, such as intentionally noticing what I notice; naming and challenging my underlying assumptions; and coming to grips with the fact that, like most humans, I tend to see what I expect to see (called “confirmation bias”) and I can choose to let go of expectations and get curious instead.  As a leadership coach, I am habitually asking myself and others “What is the story I am telling myself about this person/situation/issue?” and employing Jennifer Garvey Berger’s two favorite transformative questions: “What do I believe?” and “How could I be wrong?”  These can all be helpful to uncovering some unconscious bias if you’re willing to be honest with yourself about the answers.  It takes humility and persistence to undertake the life-long process of mitigating unconscious bias.

My Learning Path So Far

While my process of racial awakening was originally catalyzed by the assassination of Trayvon Martin in 2012, it was in 2016 that I began educating myself in earnest about implicit bias with podcasts (like the fascinating On Being interview of Mahzarin Banaji by Krista Tippett, “The Mind Is a Difference-Seeking Machine”), attending a workshop on the topic given by Karen Richards of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, and reading articles about how leaders can leverage this research to build more powerful organizations (such as this CDO Insights white paper from 2008, although up-to-date equivalents would be this guide to “Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Recruitment, Hiring and Retention” published by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, and this impressive collection of deeper-dive papers called What Works).

As time went on, I also checked out articles and videos by Robin DiAngelo – e.g., “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard to Talk to White People About Racism,” and this 22-minute video presentation entitled “Deconstructing White Privilege” – whose explanations of these concepts I responded to deeply.  (I also read Debby Irving’s Waking Up White, a memoir about how Irving raised her racial consciousness, which didn’t especially resonate with me.)  I enjoyed Stacey Abrams’ inspiring “handbook” for navigating unconscious bias and systemic racism as a black, indigenous, person of color or LGBTQ+ leader, Lead from the Outside.  The most potent book I’ve ever read about racism, unconscious bias and race-as-construct is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ profound and devastating Between the World and Me.  It’s written in the form of an expansive letter to his black son, whom Coates advises: But do not pin your struggle on [white people’s, or “the Dreamers”] conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field of their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all.”  In 2017 I visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which lent the gravity of innumerable tangible artifacts to my struggle as a Dreamer to understand the stage where Dreamers have painted ourselves white.

“The Person You Mean to Be”

There are now a lot of books about implicit bias (here’s a list of 31), and I recently asked a friend of mine – Dr. Deborah Willis, who runs the diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) certificate program at the University of Michigan as the Program Manager for Professional & Academic Development – to recommend one that I could read for my own development and which I might integrate into my leadership coaching, training and consulting work.  She suggested Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias (Harper, 2018).

I liked it.  It is an accessible account of recent research on implicit bias and systemic inequities (Chugh uses concepts like “headwinds” and “tailwinds” to demonstrate economic and other ripple effects across generations of families of different races).  She compassionately explains the emotional dynamics of discovering our biases, racism and microaggressions and how to shift from being a conceptual “believer” in change to becoming an engaged “builder” of change.  Two of the most impactful chapters for me were “Look Out for These Four ‘Good’ Intentions” (i.e. savior mode, sympathy mode, tolerance and difference-blindness mode, and typecasting mode), and “Be Inclusive,” which is an enlightening and well-rendered – if too short – description of what inclusiveness looks like and feels like, particularly at work.  The book also discusses how to engage as a bystander, as an educator, and as a person who offers meaningful support to others.

Related Resources

The next step on my journey is to understand anti-racism.  I attended a webinar with Ibram X. Kendi recently that addressed some of my basic questions about what anti-racism is, and his book How to Be an Antiracist is on my reading list this summer.  I want to learn how to be accountable to my commitments through action.  In the meantime, I was shaken and positively provoked by this stunning conversation between Robin Di Angelo and Resmaa Menakem with Krista Tippett on “On Being,” which I highly recommend, especially to white people.

Also, while Sebene Salassie is clear in episode #252 of 10% Happier that “You Can’t Meditate This Away (Race, Rage and the Responsibilities of Meditators),” she posted a very interesting meditation called “See Through Unconscious Bias” on 6/12/20 at the 10% Happier website (scroll way down).  On the topic of meditation, I just discovered an app for black, indigenous and people of color called Liberate whose tagline is “Meditation. By Us, For Us.”


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