Ever had an accidental existential crisis? I remember starting to feel those first pangs of “growing up” in my teens. I was sitting there eating an ice cream cone and suddenly trying to figure out who I was, while wondering at how much control I had over who I’d become. I was a daughter, a student, a sister, a runner, a Texan – I reinforced these identities over and over, wearing them like a name tag to make sense of the world around me. But without this context, who was I?
Even though this realization was unsettling, I remember feeling ignited with a sense of curiosity about “knowing myself” on a deeper level. And so began the path to greater awareness about how the small world I’d known thus far in my life, and the systems at play, had subtle, and even invisible ways of shaping my identity and beliefs. I’m still on this journey of uncovering my own biases, and I know this is lifelong work. The ability to pave my own path from that day forward was in itself a privilege, even if I didn’t see it at the time.
Recent events have shown us that we have a long way to go when it comes uncovering our biases, especially in the fight against systemic racism. Instead of waiting for others to teach us, we’ve been called to listen, learn, and question some of our long-held beliefs. While this issue is not new, this collective reckoning, coupled with the work of the leaders in the space who have been fighting for change for decades, has surfaced countless resources in recent months. Books on bias and racism are selling out, and we’ve had many conversations on our team about how to turn allyship into action, how the information we consume shapes us, and how to embrace and embody antiracism. While this problem is not just about individuals, it starts with us. Self awareness is not the whole answer — but it is a tool that can pave the way toward change.
So how do we become more self-aware and dismantle our own biases? Psychotherapist Christina Fondren, LMSW, reminds us that “our brains are malleable.” In her practice, she uses therapy as a vehicle to help her clients live with greater clarity, purpose, and connection to themselves and others.
When it comes to biases, she points out that “just as good psychotherapy literally improves mechanisms and connections in the brain, it is also possible to alter the associations and attitudes we form about others in our brain.”
We interviewed Christina about implicit bias and how it shapes our behaviors, especially from a young age. She believes this work of un-learning unconscious bias starts with humility, openness and curiosity. With greater self-awareness, we can approach difficult conversations with authenticity, and better learn what advocacy and action is truly needed. Because isn’t the invitation to grow, change and love one another one of the greatest gifts we can give and receive? Scroll on for Christina’s guidance…
What is implicit bias?
Essentially, implicit bias is a result of the brain’s natural tendency to look for patterns and associations to synthesize information and make sense of a very complicated world. It matters because it can have damaging consequences on both an individual and societal level. Implicit bias is linked to oppression and ongoing socio-political, economic, and health inequalities. So, what we’re talking about here is not simply an unconscious brain process that occurs in a vacuum.
Implicit bias actually has reverberating oppressive after effects, making it a human rights issue that merits our close attention.
What are the costs of implicit bias?
These biases can have a significant imprint on how we act and move through the world. They can negatively influence behaviors and decision-making in the workplace, school setting, healthcare system, and other environments. Implicit bias leads to the development of preconceived judgments or opinions about groups of people and specific characteristics. It can lead to both individual and systemic discrimination, restricting freedom and access to equal opportunity.
To put it simply, implicit biases create barriers and limits on a person’s ability to achieve their full potential.
How do privilege and implicit bias relate?
Implicit bias and privilege share the property of invisibility and are also deeply connected to one another. Privilege is the unearned advantage of belonging to a particular social identity – such as race, gender, (dis)ability, religion, social class, etc. – that is “dominant” in society.
The issue with privilege is that it cannot exist without oppression. Minority groups experience oppression in that they are subject to the judgments and stereotypes, unconscious and conscious, of the dominant groups with power. As a result, the implicit biases held by those with privilege in our society drastically shape the larger social narrative of minority groups.
Are there habits that perpetuate biases we already have?
Oh yes, too many to name! Think for a moment on who you follow on Instagram, or the TV shows and movies you watch, or the people you spend most of your time with. You might find a common thread in that most of these people look like you, talk like you, dress like you, and come from a similar socioeconomic background, education, and neighborhood as you. This can perpetuate something called in-group bias, a tendency people have to favor their own group or characteristics above those of others.
To put it another way, the biases and prejudices we carry are often reinforced by our habits and the larger systems of oppression at play.
photo by steven simko
How do we learn implicit bias?
Implicit bias is a unique result of both nature and nurture. As we’ve discussed in regard to nature, our brains unconsciously form associations and biases to make it easier to take in data about the world. Simultaneously, implicit bias is also a result of the socialization process into which all human beings are born. Babies are like sponges, constantly influenced, shaped, and taught by their environment. The consequence of this paired force is that the development of stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination largely occurs organically and has its roots in early childhood. And over our lifespan, our environment and psychological processes can negatively reinforce often deeply entrenched belief templates towards particular groups of people.
What are some ways we can uncover our own biases?
- Start with yourself!
- Reflect on your own stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination.
- Take this test: Project Implicit.
- Educate yourself. A few great resources:
- Practice mindfulness.
- Pay attention to the thoughts and associations you have about people with different characteristics and identities.
How can we have more conversations about implicit biases and race with family, friends, coworkers, etc.?
- Be bold and initiate conversation.
- Lead with humility, openness, and curiosity.
- Host a training at your workplace, community organization, nonprofit or university. Resources to check out:
- Start a book club. Some great books to start with:
Can we improve, reduce or even “unlearn” our own biases?
The short-hand answer is yes, absolutely! But it takes earnest effort and intent. It requires a willingness to undergo the emotional and painful experience of acknowledging your own privilege and unconscious thinking patterns. The process of “unlearning” our own biases is both challenging and sobering, and also is categorically imperative and rewarding.
- Focus on seeing people on an individual human level.
- Evaluate people based on personal characteristics rather than generalizations
- Avoid making black and white statements about groups of people and individuals
- Particularly when related to chronic illness or disability, use people first language. For example: a person who is deaf, rather than “a deaf person” or a person with bipolar, rather than “a bipolar person.”
- Increase exposure.
- Expand your circle to people of other social, racial, religious, and cultural backgrounds.
- Practice humility.
- Listen to others with curiosity more often than you talk.
- Shift perspectives.
- Generate authentic empathy and consider what it would be like to step in the shoes of a stereotyped person.
- How does it feel to be labeled, consciously and unconsciously, based on the color of your skin, how you dress, your religion, whom you love, etc.?
- Countering stereotypes.
- When you find yourself with judgments or preconceived ideas about a person or group, consciously think of evidence that disproves this stereotype.
Christina Fondren, LMSW is a psychotherapist practicing in Austin, TX, supervised by Shannon Huggins, LCSW-S. Whether 10 years old or 60 years old, Christina helps her clients live with greater clarity, purpose, and connection to themselves and others. She supports clients in becoming more self-aware and engaging in the work of personal growth that can lead to meaningful change. To find out more, email her at [email protected].
This post was originally published on September 7, 2020, and has since been updated.