As I start the year 2021, I think back on my almost twenty-five and a half years of life and of being born into a time of increasing calls for awareness, equity, and justice for human beings, regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, etc. I think about hard conversations, different realities that various groups of people live and experience, depending on their identity, about denial, confusion, defensiveness, anger, and other powerful emotions that accompany confrontation with injustices. I think about navigating life, both online in the realms of media and social media platforms and offline when interacting with others face to face. Everyone living today in American society and in the globalized society that seems to be shrinking more and more exists in a time when the call for rectifying injustices is becoming more frequent and increasingly heard by more and more people. As many are becoming aware of injustices, and for those who have been aware of injustices which exist in their respective societies, they are working diligently to do their part to achieve the reality of freedom, justice, and equity for every person. One of the most complicated and difficult aspects of overcoming these injustices and changing systemically oppressive institutions and organizations is the concept of implicit bias. I think this is such a significant hurdle for so many to overcome, because 1) no one is immune to implicit bias and 2) it is ingrained in members of every society, an individual phenomenon that naturally becomes shaped and collectivized on the societal level.
Let’s explore the meaning of implicit bias. One definition states: “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. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.”[i] I will say, I disagree with the last part of this definition, because it is possible to recognize and reduce implicit biases. However, the overall definition itself is clear—everyone has certain biases and prejudices against groups of people of which they are completely unaware, but which greatly influence thoughts, and in turn actions, regarding these groups. As we all become aware of our implicit biases, whether positive or negative, this realization is extremely jarring and troublesome for, I would say, everyone who experiences this in their life, no matter when it happens. A major cause for this, which can lead to intense feelings of anger, denial, and guilt, is because we live in a world that has been defined increasingly by binary thought.
Let us examine the concepts of “good” versus “bad” in relation to the topic of sexism through the lens of binary thought. In the realm of binary thinking, these are the only two options, “good” or “bad”, “not sexist” or “sexist.” Most people would naturally claim they are good, and therefore not sexist. However, in societies around the world, customs, norms, pop culture, etc. inundate everyone with messages about groups of people as a whole. Regarding sexism against women and girls specifically, this includes negative and stereotypical views against them that we internalize, but of which we are unaware. Continuing with this example, when we become aware of negative views we might have against women and girls, we have sort of an identity crisis. We have held the thought that good = not sexist and bad = sexist, so when we begin to realize that we have biases and prejudices against people (in this example against women and girls), this self-confrontation is a hugely emotional struggle with our own values, morals, and image of who we are as a person. It is necessary during this process of identifying and confronting our implicit biases that we deconstruct binary thinking as well. We need to remember that everyone, and I mean everyone, has implicit biases against different groups of people, and that you can still be a morally and ethically good person despite these implicit biases as you actively seek to learn more about yourself, identify and investigate the reasons for your implicit biases, and seek to be more aware of how they influence your thoughts, feelings, and actions towards groups of people. It is a lifelong commitment that at times may feel daunting, but it is a worthwhile pursuit in the cause of working towards liberty and justice for all people.
During one of my previous semesters as an undergrad at BYU, I had an interesting experience concerning my own implicit biases. I was taking a course and one of the assignments I was given was to write an essay about a group of people against which I had a bias. The professor said that everyone has biases, that she herself has biases, and it was important, in my opinion, that she addressed the universality of the concept as she was explaining it to us. Every semester the students in this course are given this essay prompt and undergo the process of identifying the group, the bias, the reasons for it, and then have the chance to resist their implicit (or even sometimes explicit) biases. It was an experience which allowed each student to hopefully be honest with themselves, and I believe it was one of the most valuable assignments I ever completed in my undergraduate education.
For me personally, it was at times an uncomfortable experience, because I was forced to explore my thoughts, feelings, and biases against a certain group of people. This was both easy and hard. It was easy because I sincerely believed I was justified in how I felt. For example, I had had numerous negative experiences with this group of people for an extended period of time, up close and personal. However, it was hard because as I explored my bias and my strong feelings, I began to realize that many of the negative experiences occurred in very specific contexts and instances. I had to begin to separate these specific experiences from my overall impression of this group of people, because they had extremely distorted my views. I began to learn more about the culture, norms, customs, attitudes, and beliefs of this group of people, and it gave me a better understanding of the negative experiences I had. I will say that as hard as it was for me to come to terms with my biases, it was almost a cleansing and freeing experience for me as I felt a burden lifted. I discovered that the more I learn about those who are different from me, the more compassion and understanding I have for them, which helps me to think about them and interact with them in a positive manner and mitigates or eliminates biases. I would be dishonest if I claimed that all of my stereotypical views or biases against this group of people suddenly disappeared due to the assignment, but the assignment helped me to begin the path to reconciliation due to the hurt and the pain I legitimately experienced and to overcome the biases I have. It’s been three years since I completed that assignment, and as I look back, I can see how it helped me to recognize and work on transcending my biases.
As we all work to examine, understand, and overcome our implicit biases, let us remember that we are all human beings who are working to become the best version of ourselves. We all start somewhere, at different times, and have varying capacities for understanding and awareness. Let us have compassion for those who are confronting their biases and work together with them as we all seek to improve. Let us avoid the echo chambers and toxicity and vitriol of social media, seek common ground with others, and work to conquer the biases we hold.
This post was written by Jacob Wright, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.