Is Implicit Bias Racist?

Three things every teacher should know about implicit bias and the brain.
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Editor’s note: We’re posting two articles today about how learning more about the human brain can help address and overcome implicit bias in the classroom. The first article, “Rerouting Shortcuts,” shows how cognitive shortcuts can lead to stereotyping and biased behavior. This article dives deeper into the science behind implicit bias and offers try-tomorrow tips.

I remember talking to Janice, a white teacher working with a diverse classroom of African-American, Mexican-American and Southeast-Asian fifth-grade students. She asked me, “How do I get my students to get engaged in their own learning?” She went on to say that she felt frustrated that, despite having good relationships with them, they weren’t stepping up. “They don’t seem to care,” she said. On the surface, Janice’s comments didn’t seem biased. She seemed genuinely committed to their success. But as we continued talking, it was clear that Janice had assumptions about who her students were, their capacity as learners and even the quality of her relationship with them. 

Janice’s efforts to get her students engaged—and their resistance—had a lot to do with the neuroscience of implicit bias. Issues of race, privilege and belonging can trigger our internal alarms in cross-cultural, teacher-student relationships. Believe it or not, teachers’ implicit bias and students’ disengagement are two different defense responses to the brain’s efforts to keep us “safe and happy.”

Here are three brain rules to help you better understand implicit bias and its effects.


1. While the brain isn’t wired to be racist, it uses biases as unconscious defensive shortcuts.

As human beings, we are not naturally racist. But because of the way our brains are wired, we are naturally "groupist." The brain has a strong need for relatedness.

This wiring for “groupism” usually leads the dominant culture (the in-group) in a race-based society to create “out-groups” based on race, gender, language and sexual orientation. A system of inequity is maintained by negative social messages that dehumanize people of color, women and LGBT people as “the other.” For folks in the in-group, the brain takes in these messages and downloads them like software into the brain’s fear system. This leads to implicit bias: the unconscious attitudes and beliefs that shape our behavior toward someone perceived as inferior or as a threatening outsider.

This may seem racist, but it’s actually unconscious programming versus explicit discrimination. Implicit bias is our brain’s natural safety system gone haywire. The challenge for teachers is to become aware of their own implicit bias, which isn’t easy. Janice couldn’t see where she had any implicit bias regarding her students. So we set up an inquiry to see if her relationships were as positive as she reports.

For two weeks, I tracked whether her interactions with certain students were positive, negative or neutral (didn’t talk to them at any point in the day). She was shocked to see that many of her interactions were negative—always pointing out off-task behavior, using sarcasm to motivate and discounting their cultural learning tools and strategies. What she thought were positive interactions were really negative statements sugarcoated with a “happy” tone of voice.

Here are some tips for bringing implicit bias to consciousness:

  • Check your assumptions. Are there other ways to interpret a student’s behavior or reaction? Do your assumptions take into account social inequities or the stress of oppression in a racialized society?
  • Look for patterns of inequity. Who do you call on most often? Who gets disciplined most often? What’s behind the discipline issues?
  • Pay attention to your body sensations that signal fear or a sense of threat. During an incident, be sure to check your assumptions about why you are responding to specific students with frustration, suspicion or lower expectations. This can help rewire your brain’s messages about the student.


2. The brain uses the nervous system to sniff out implicit bias.

Remember the brain’s strong need for relatedness? Our need to be connected to a caring community and maintain a sense of identity is so critical to our survival that the brain has developed the ability to actually sniff out threats. It’s called neuroception and happens when the brain’s neural circuits send information to the brain’s fear center to determine if new situations or people are safe or dangerous. Like a watchdog, the amygdala in the fear center is designed to react in less than a second, at the very hint of a social threat.

In the case of cross-racial relationships, neuroception heightens students’ awareness of a teacher’s threating microaggressions based on race or ethnicity. (Microaggressions are those very subtle, everyday verbal and nonverbal slights, snubs or insults driven by implicit bias that serve to invalidate positive group identity or trivialize the experience or capacity of those in the out-group.)

Janice realized her speeches to students about “stepping up” and not caring about their education were in reality microaggressions. Even treating all students the same and being “colorblind” can be experienced as a microaggression because it invalidates students’ rich cultural capital and doesn’t acknowledge the social inequities they navigate daily.

Here are tips to avoid triggering students’ stress response to bias:

  • Learn what rapport and connection look like in different cultures and begin using some of those tools. For example, socializing over food is a common way to connect.
  • Practice affirmation and validation. Acknowledge students’ potential for rigorous learning. Show that you are aware of the socio-political context that marginalizes and invalidates the experiences of youth of color, especially English learners and African-American boys. Both groups are the usual targets of implicit bias.


3. Trust calms the brain’s watchdog.

The antidote to triggering the amygdala in the brain’s fear center is building trust. Neuroscience tells us the brain feels safest and relaxed when we are connected to others we trust to treat us well. It responds by secreting oxytocin, called the “bonding hormone.” Just as cortisol is the brain’s alert signal to go into defense mode, oxytocin is the brain’s signal for the amygdala to stand down and relax.

Here are some tips for building trust across differences:

  • Be vulnerable and real with students. Share some of your life experiences so they see you as human, not just the authority figure. In return, listen to their stories.
  • Create affinities and connections around similarities you and students share. Maybe it’s a love of a particular sports team or a social justice cause. The research is clear. One of the fastest ways to rewire our implicit biases is to redefine the in-group/out-group.

Hammond is a teacher educator and the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. She blogs at