It started with a simple exercise. UCLA Law and Asian American Studies Professor Jerry Kang flashed a graphic resembling a chess board on the screen, with various objects casting shadows on the squares. He then pointed out two of the squares to the audience of Wildwood faculty and staff, and asked which square was darkest.
“Do you trust your eyes?” Kang, who also serves as Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, asked quizzically.
The answer seemed obvious, but as Kang began to remove certain objects and their shadows off the board, it became harder to distinguish until eventually, the truth was staring the audience in the face: the two squares were exactly the same shade.
Using this chessboard illusion as a metaphor, Dr. Kang introduced Wildwood faculty and staff to the concept of implicit bias. 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.
According to Kang, implicit bias is responsible for racial and gender disparities that persist in household income, job status, and a myriad of other measurements–even as explicit bias has greatly diminished over the past century.
Implicit bias also finds its way into the classroom, where certain students may receive more attention or positive feedback than others. Even the best-intentioned educators carry some degree of implicit bias, and because it is unconscious, it is practically impossible to recognize and address without active efforts and self-reflection.
As educators, how do we limit the effect of implicit bias and establish an equitable learning environment? For Kang, it involves three steps:
- Becoming aware of one's implicit bias. It starts with the simple recognition of what your implicit biases may be. Luckily, there are some tools out there to help. One of these, Project Implicit, a non-profit organization run by academics at a range of universities who are studying implicit bias, offers an online test to help uncover what implicit biases you may hold, and to what degree.
- Being concerned about the consequences of the bias. One instance of implicit bias–such as calling on one students or group of students more than others–may seem insignificant at the time, but it has a snowball effect that carries over into areas of increasing impact, such as a student’s overall evaluation, college application, etc. Realizing the scope of one’s implicit bias should hopefully drive an understanding of the need to address it.
- Learning to replace the biased response. If you do recognize that a response to a person might be rooted in biases or stereotypes, make an effort to consciously adjust your response. Expose yourself to counter-stereotypic examples, which will gradually chip away at your unconscious bias.
Each new school year offers a new opportunity to learn and grow—not just for students, but for the entire Wildwood community. While topics such as implicit bias may lead to uncomfortable realizations and discussions, taking these steps—particularly at the beginning of the year—is critical for creating a diverse, collaborative community of students, parents, and educators, and we’re grateful for Dr. Kang for sharing his insights.