Monday, September 14, 2009

De-Biasing Implicit Bias: Start with our Schools

By Marguerite L. Spencer, Senior Researcher at the Kirwan Institute

The concept of implicit bias has gone mainstream. Even Oprah had a piece on it recently featuring individuals who had taken the Implicit Bias Test (IAT). Several whites were surprised to find that they harbored negative racial bias towards blacks, even though they believed themselves to be egalitarian. Researchers suggest that more than 70% of the test takers on the Project Implicit website associated whites with good and blacks with bad. What can we do to debias ourselves?

Following up on a 2001 demonstration by Buju Dasgupta and Tony Greenwald, researchers at Project Explicit tested whether racial bias can be reduced by exposing test takers to admired blacks, such as Jackie Robinson, and disliked whites, such as Jeffrey Dahmer. Unlike the results in the earlier test, they found that there were no differences between participants who were exposed to these imagers and those who were not. They concluded that simple exposure to good blacks is not enough. What is needed is repeated exposure, including negative associations with whites.

Since our implicit biases spring largely from our environments and experiences, many suggest that the best place for repeated positive exposure is in meaningfully integrated school settings (no tracking, discrimination in disciplining etc…). A growing number of studies show that a racially integrated school environment promotes cross-racial friendships and increases comfort levels, often reducing biases and stereotypes. An integrated environment is particularly important during a student’s early years, when their attitudes about race are not yet concretely shaped. We also know that students who have been educated in a diverse environment, including whites, place a high value on integration as preparation for public life in multiracial settings.

This all seems obvious, but achieving integrated schools is highly personalized and politicized on both the familial, local and national level, and fraught with implicit biases of its own. We need to figure out a way to think and talk about integration that can allow us to debias ourselves, dismantle any racialized barriers that prevent us from integrating, and move forward in a strategic way. Acknowledging our biases is one thing, but debiasing is where we need to go next. Integrated schools can become the primary front in which we arm ourselves to make racially just structural changes in our society.

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