Is “Bias” a Dirty Word?
When the word “bias” is used, it often doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves. It is usually associated with racism, sexism and other discriminatory behavior. “Implicit bias” is a term that got a lot of play during the presidential campaigns and debates this year, but what does it really mean?
Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton commented during one of the debates, “We’re all a little biased, even if we don’t know it.” According to researchers, this is not meant to be an insult, but a plain fact. Implicit bias is not subjective—it transcends the way we feel, and can be defined objectively.
Emily Badger of The New York Times writes, “Implicit bias is the mind’s way of making uncontrolled and automatic associations between two concepts very quickly.” She explains that it is a healthy human adaptation that we use in our everyday lives—like picking our work route, choosing where to buy groceries, etc. It’s automatically engrained in the psyche, based on how our culture trains us.
Implicit bias is normal and inevitable, but when it runs counter to our stated values, it becomes a problem. Eliminating it is nearly impossible—and attempting to do so is unreasonable. But we can learn to interrupt behaviors that are a result of bias before they conflict with the morals and values of the society we live in, especially when it leads to civil injustices.
This is why it is important to be able to discuss implicit bias openly, without getting defensive. In order to pinpoint the factors that lead to the ugliness of inequality and injustice, a vocabulary needs to be available to put things in proper context.
Implicit bias is simply a psychological reality backed by science. So, when it is said that we all tend to be biased, this is not a cue to put up walls, but rather an opportunity to discuss those behaviors openly, so we can get on the path of more fully understanding and accepting one another.