Implicit bias

People can be prejudiced even when they have a strong ethical belief in equality. I see signs of this in myself. Trans people know of internalised transphobia- though we have transitioned we still can behave in a prejudiced way towards other trans people, or even affirm others’ prejudice against us.

Some people are biased and know it but are unwilling to state it. I know when someone is being transphobic, if their transphobia is greater than mine, and I don’t care whether they are aware of it, but if I believe they intend to behave ethically- they are Quakers, for example- the existence of implicit bias shows that they can still behave transphobically.

I believe in my own implicit bias. Because I intend to act ethically, I will be unconscious of it. I can become conscious of my unconscious motivations. They could come from the wider culture. For example if I watch a lot of dramas in which Black people from poor areas trade drugs- The Wire, Snowfall, Top Boy– and the news sources I read report prosecutions of Black drug dealers (not stating the race of the accused unless it is relevant, but showing pictures of them) I can be appalled when racist Trump says “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime” but might still make racist assumptions about drug dealing.

They could come from liking familiarity. There were no Black children in my year at school. There were three in the school when I was there. I have less excuse for “being unfamiliar” having lived in cities and moved around the country, but am still affected by the associations of others. It can be hard to be the only Black person in a social group. There needs to be deliberate effort to mix people. Trans people are probably the only trans person in any group except LGBT+ groups.

My liking for familiarity shows in my desire for code-switching. I am most comfortable amongst Quakers when the code fits “Educated professional”. I was surprised when my Friend started with her Durham accent, I had heard no sign of it before. We don’t use our regional accents outside our region, often. Now, hiding signs of working class roots should not be necessary for Quakers. We are a group united by our spiritual work. And still working class people often hide it. I seek to hide or dissimulate my class status myself, bringing out aspects which show a higher class, embarrassed by other aspects.

In my experience, quick responses are more likely to produce a prejudiced action than considered responses. Slow thinking uses time and effort. Especially when I know implicit biases exist, consciously analysing what decision to make produces less biased outcomes.

If the biases are unconscious, are we morally culpable? Yes. They harm people in out groups. “Do no harm” is a good moral principle. If someone finds their anger hard to control, criminal law still deals with them when they hit someone. “He made me angry” is mitigation but not defence to assault. So what harms society takes care to avoid is a political decision.

Some biases are structural. A lot of factors work towards Black people being more likely to suffer penalties for drug possession and supply than white people, but some of them are in the minds of individuals. We can work against both factors.

I might attempt to control my bias, or change it. To control:

  • inter-group contact, where we see each other as equals.
  • approach training: notice when you hear stereotypes, and deliberately deny them.
  • evaluative conditioning: a trainer could show a Black face and counter-stereotypical words, such as “genius”.
  • counter-stereotype exposure. I could pay attention to people who break stereotypes. I never really thought “role models” mattered, but seeing someone fulfil a role helps break the idea that no-one like that could do that. The Radio 4 interview series The Life Scientific has a strict gender balance, 50% women interviewees. I could consider particular people, or imaginary counter-stereotypes.

To change it:

  • implementation intentions. Before marking scripts or considering CVs, the assessor reminds themself of racial bias in such things, and forms the intention not to show such bias.
  • Techniques for noticing prejudiced responses after they happen. I feel bad about it when I see I have done it, and that makes me want not to do it again.

These are things to practise, but everyone should know that working towards equality requires more than good intentions.

Much of this comes from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This study proposes five strategies, including

  • Stereotype replacement: recognise a response is based on stereotypes, label it as stereotypical, reflect on why it occurred, consider how to avoid it in the future and replace it with an unbiased response.
  • Individuation: getting to know a wide range of people within the group, so that I no longer apply stereotypes.
  • Perspective taking: taking the perspective in the first person of a member of a stereotyped group– It sounds like empathy.

The study showed people who wanted to could use these strategies to reduce their bias.

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