This headline got your attention.
Did it cause any immediate, gut emotions? Why do you think these feelings emerged? If your response was mild curiousity on where this article was going, kudos.
First, context. This piece is not going to participate in the debate on the appearance of statues in the Catholic Church, nor the history of the Church with regard to the encomienda system, slavery etc. It does however arise from the ongoing dialogue on how we treat with and interact with each other, and the implicit biases we may be carrying.
Two recent examples immediately leap to the fore. The first is the Central Park incident. Amy Cooper, who called the police on the black birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, is a Democrat. In her apology she declared, “I am not a racist”, yet in her call to the police, her language was explicit in identifying him: an African-American man was threatening her.
Church of England Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, in June of this year, said in a BBC radio interview that he would be reviewing statues in Westminster Abbey and Canterbury cathedral. He also added: “You see a black Jesus, a Chinese Jesus, a Middle Eastern Jesus, which is of course the most accurate, you see a Fijan Jesus. Jesus is portrayed in as many ways as there are cultures, languages and understandings.”
But some white Brits were livid. He was declared a disgrace, in one response, his leadership feeble in another. The uproar was baffling but I would not necessarily label these people as active racists, Perhaps, there may be unconscious biases at play here.
Implicit or unconscious bias is not something from which we in T&T are immune. From my own experience, it emerges in the language used: ‘What wrong wit dis lil Indian, boy?’; ‘So ghetto’; ‘Is so dem stop’. We may pride ourselves in our ostensible diverse friends, but it does not mean that we are unaffected by our own quiet stereotypes.
What is implicit bias?
The term was first coined in 1995, by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. Social behaviour they argued, is largely influenced by unconscious associations and judgements. In an essay ‘Implicit or unconscious bias’ by Charlotte Ruhl (July 1, 2020) on simplepsychology.com, it is defined as “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious way, making them difficult to control”.
She goes further to say “An implicit bias may run counter to a person’s conscious beliefs without them realizing it. For example, it is possible to express explicit liking of a certain social group or approval of a certain action, while simultaneously being biased against that group or action on an unconscious level.”
Research, according to Ruhl, shows that before kindergarten, children use their group membership (racial group, gender group, age group) “to guide inferences about the psychological and behavioral traits”. Further, “not only do children recognize what sets them apart from other groups, they believe ‘what is similar to me is good, and what is different from me is bad’.”
Social and cultural influences can shape implicit associations: how groups are portrayed on television, parental language and behaviour, sibling behaviour, and school environment. Biases can also be a type of inaccurate cognitive shortcut, the brain’s way of seeking a pattern in a complex world.
Laurie A Rudman in her paper ‘Sources of Implicit Attitudes’ (2004) cited the affective association in implicit bias. Much of what is learnt early in life is preverbal and indirectly taught, and can lay the foundation for learnings later on, which “may also serve as a non-conscious source for related evaluations and actions”. A study in 2000, showed that there was a correlation in the activation of the amygdala (seat of emotion) and implicit prejudices. “….these results suggest that implicit attitudes may stem from automatic emotional reactions to stimuli.”
What is the danger then, if implicit bias can be unconsciously held and does not manifest ostensibly? Implicit bias can become explicit. A local example can be what happens every four years here, when the tribal call results in ugly language. Beyond that, however, implicit bias can shape treatment in many different spheres important to individual and group development: justice, health care, education, and even the practice of faith.
Can implicit biases be resisted?
Some simple conscious approaches can be used.
Resisting implicit bias can be lifelong effort. Don’t be afraid to constantly restart the process and look for new ways to improve. Malcolm Gladwell in Blink says this: “All of us have implicit biases to some degree. This does not necessarily mean we will act in an inappropriate or discriminatory manner, only that our first ‘blink’ sends us certain information. Acknowledging and understanding this implicit response and its value and role is critical to informed decision-making and is particularly critical to those whose decisions must embody fairness and justice.”