Editor’s note: This article is the first in a three-part series that links three important ideas—implicit bias, stereotype threat and identity safety—all backed by research.
As educators, it may seem overwhelming that, in addition to addressing overt racism in our classrooms and schools, we also need to tackle unconscious racial prejudices, known as “implicit bias,” not only in our students, but in ourselves. However, it is possible to address implicit bias, and the solutions are in our hands.
The recent events in Ferguson came as a dramatic wake-up call for our country. Fifty years after Selma, we still have a racial divide in this country. While overt racism has greatly declined from the days of segregation and lynching, and many laws now seek to protect our citizens from discrimination, pervasive racist attitudes rear their ugly heads in harmful and sometimes deadly ways. For many of us who strive for equity and social justice in our rapidly diversifying country, the next big hurdle in our path is tackling aversive racism and stereotyping—also known as implicit bias. Negative stereotypes feed our minds like a steady drip of toxin; we may not even be aware of as it occurs. Whether toxic attitudes are about other people or ourselves, they are very damaging.
Several research experiments have deepened our understanding of implicit bias:
In one experiment, word association was used to identify bias. Study participants were shown words with positive or negative associations like “happy” or awful” and then rapidly shown either black and white faces. Right away, they were told to classify the words as pleasant or unpleasant. White participants classified negative words more quickly if the words were shown after they saw black faces, suggesting a negative association with black people.
In another study, research subjects viewed black and white faces so quickly that they didn’t consciously know what they saw. Then a blurred object flashed on the screen. Sometimes the object was a knife or gun. If participants saw black faces, they quickly identified the guns and knives. If they saw white faces, it took more time to discern the object.
Understand the Problem
One of the challenges of changing implicit bias is that, because we are often not conscious of our beliefs, we can take actions based on them without realizing it. These types of reactions have been part of the fabric of humans since our earliest days. Often we fear people and events that surprise us or are unfamiliar to us. To some extent, this type of stereotyping is built into us as a survival mechanism that gets passed on to children. That does not mean implicit bias is “natural” or right. It means we need to be aware that we are capable of holding beliefs that are not based in logic. Once we do that, we can step back and analyze how implicit bias negatively affects us today.
Like the canaries in the gold mine, the unconscious bias that lurks in our minds can indicate the potential for devastating outcomes such as an officer making a split-second decision and killing an unarmed youth. And for educators, implicit bias can cause us to suspend and expel students more rapidly, as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan captured when he highlighted statistics on how black students are suspended and expelled at rates three times those of whites, often for lesser offenses.
Implicit bias does not just belong in the domain of white police officers and educators, though. Jennifer Eberhardt, an implicit bias researcher, says, “A lot of the tests we’ve done, we give them to students, to ordinary citizens and to police officers. We’re finding the results are generally similar.” It can also be harmful when it causes subjective and discriminatory choices in hiring, approving people for loans and many other arenas.
Move Toward Solutions
A growing body of research is emerging on how to counteract implicit bias. We need to become knowledgeable about how unconscious prejudice works in order to begin to change it. (You can take online Implicit Association Tests, or IATs, to measure unconscious bias.) Beyond this awareness and taking accountability, there are specific ways that educators and others can counteract it.
While thinking about overcoming unconscious attitudes may be overwhelming, the good news is our brains are malleable. Educators can work on countering negative stereotypes and looking at each person as an individual instead of lumping them together. They also can create identity-safe classrooms where everyone feels a sense of belonging and empathy toward others, with opportunities to get to know and befriend others who are different from them.
The next two blogs in this series will show on-the-ground action by teachers using promising practices to address implicit bias. The second blog in the series will show how teachers are countering negative stereotypes by having students learn about ways to reduce stereotyping in class and understand the concept of stereotype threat, the fear of confirming a negative stereotype. The third blog will focus on creating identity-safe classrooms where students and their social identities are assets, rather than barriers, to success in the classroom.
All students deserve to be welcomed, supported and valued as members of the learning community. Before we can truly model empathy for and acceptance of individuals from identity groups different from our own, we must learn to be honest about the biases we hold.
Cohn-Vargas is director of Not in Our School and coauthor of Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn.
 Woo, 2015
 Dreifus, 2015
 Devine, 2012
 Steele and Aronson, 2002
 Cohn-Vargas, Steele, 2013