Life Opinion

Does implicit bias mean you’re racist?

95% of high school students have a racial preference

I put my fellow classmates to the test. The vast majority of them displayed some sort of racial preference.

Racial bias is a widely-known reality, yet most people still don’t think they’re the ones to blame. That may be partly due to the fact that racial bias can even be unconscious. 

But if you don’t even realize you have a preference towards a certain race, does that make you a racist? 

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines racism as “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” Whether or not unconscious preferences count as “beliefs” is perhaps debatable.

That being said, doesn’t having a preference, conscious or not, make us racist, at least, to some extent? Well, if you’re following the official definition — yes, but the word “racism” is normally used in a much broader and serious context. It is not a word that gets thrown around lightly, and calling someone racist due to implicit bias would not sit well with most people. 

Furthermore, it would not be fair to claim that everyone has an implicit racial bias. Luckily, this is an area that has been studied extensively. Harvard University developed a method called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which tests one’s association of positive and negative words with certain ethnic faces. The test is not a perfect system for determining bias, but it is an important step forward in understanding how widespread implicit racial bias actually is.

So how does it work? The Harvard Race IAT involves seven rounds of association, the first round being the identification of African American and European American faces, and pleasant and unpleasant words. In the third and fourth rounds, you are asked to sort European faces with pleasant words and African faces with unpleasant words. It then switches in the sixth and seventh rounds, and you have to associate African faces with pleasant words and European faces with unpleasant words. The test measures your speed in word association, as well as the amount of mistakes you make.

Once you have completed the test, your results will either show a slight, moderate or strong automatic preference towards either African American or European American people. If you do not demonstrate a visible preference, the results show “little or no preference”. I was very curious to see how common implicit racial bias actually is, so I had a number of my fellow 8forty.ca colleagues complete the IAT. 

I collected data from 19 high school students of varying ethnicities. Of the 19 students who completed the test, 13 had a preference towards European Americans, 5 had a preference towards African Americans, and only 1 person had little to no preference at all. Of the 18 students that demonstrated racial bias, 44% had a slight preference, 33% had a moderate preference, and 22% had a strong preference. Simply put, the majority of my classmates had an easier time associating European faces with pleasant words and African faces with unpleasant words rather than vice versa. 

I was very interested to compare the data I collected with other race IAT results based on a much larger sample size. Between December 2002 and December 2015, over 3.3 million people completed the Race IAT and the results were truly eye opening.

68% of people demonstrated a preference towards European Americans, 18% had little to no preference, and only 14% demonstrated a preference towards African Americans. Even though this data is slightly outdated, it still clearly shows the racial bias in society.

It is also important to note that implicit racial bias exists against all racial minorities. Pew Research Center conducted a study on the European-Asian IAT, surveying 342 single-race whites, and 404 single-race Asians. 50% of whites displayed a preference towards their own race, while 42% of Asians had a preference towards their race. The most notable outcome, however, was that 38% of Asians displayed a preference for whites, compared to only 19% of whites preferring Asians. 

Now, how does this implicit bias contribute to the injustice that racial minorities face on a day-to-day basis? Well, implicit bias causes us to make unfair assumptions about people of different ethnicities. It also has a huge effect on the decisions we make, from the split-second to the high-consideration. 

Perhaps the most well known area that is affected by racial bias is the criminal justice system. While it is obvious that black people are stopped and searched by police much more frequently than white people, there is also a substantial difference in the length of court sentences. The U.S Sentencing Commission conducted a 4 year experiment between 2012 and 2016, finding that black men serve sentences that are, on average, 19.1% longer than those for white men with similar crimes. 

Implicit racial bias is also evident in our day-to-day lives. Studies show that black people are less likely to receive callbacks from job applications, receive less pain medication from doctors, and are punished more harshly in school than white people.

Now that I have collected my own results, reviewed the results of data from millions of IAT scores, and learned about how implicit bias affects society, what is my answer to my initial question — does implicit bias mean you’re racist?

Yes, we are all racist without even realizing it. 

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