The Hidden Brain Also Has Hidden Bias

I have personally noticed a trend regarding the idea of inclusivity. It seems that whenever inclusivity is discussed at Virginia Tech, it typically surrounds the discussion of race, gender, and sexual identity. Discussion of disabilities tends to be excluded. Maybe it’s not a trend and is instead a result of a personal bias due to my wife’s background in working amongst individuals with disabilities. Another misconception is that the term disability does not always refer to a disability that manifests in a physical manner either. I’m now getting down from my soap box so I can continue this post.

Reading about Shankar Vedantam’s The Hidden Brain reminded me of a battery of online tests that I have taken on several occasions. Psychologists at Harvard, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington created “Project Implicit” to develop Hidden Bias Tests — called Implicit Association Tests, or IATs, in the academic world — to measure unconscious bias. These tests allow you to find out your implicit associations about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other topics. Scientific research has demonstrated that biases thought to be absent or extinguished remain as “mental residue” in most of us. Studies show people can be consciously committed to egalitarianism, and deliberately work to behave without prejudice, yet still possess hidden negative prejudices or stereotypes. Therefore, I know I have implicit biases and it is a daily task to make sure I remind myself that I have them. Go ahead and try one of them….the results will surely surprise you.

Now I want to tell a story that relates to inclusivity in the classroom.

It was 2007, two years after Hurricane Katrina left its mark on New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I was working for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office in the patrol division and was told by my supervisor that I was scheduled to attend diversity training in the upcoming week.

Now, before I go any further, I would like to point out that the entire sheriff’s office was required to attend diversity training at this time. We were never told why everyone had to attend, but they were some mutterings that the department had been the subject of a civil rights investigation by the United States Department of Justice.

So, the day of diversity training came and I walked into a room of 50 deputies from across the entire department. As I looked across the room for a place to sit, I saw that there were 45 white male deputies, four white female deputies and one African-American male deputy. An outside organization sent the facilitators for the training that day: a white female, a hispanic female, and an African-American female. Every person in the room introduced themselves and then the facilitators began the training.

White female facilitator: Today we will be discussing race at great length. Who has heard the term racism before? [every deputy in the room raises a hand] Good. You can put down your hands.

Hispanic female facilitator: Raise your hand if you believe there is such a thing as reverse racism? [48 deputies raise a hand] Okay. Hands down. Hmmm. [she looks at the other facilitators] 48 out of 50. [deputies bgin looking around to attempt to figure out who didn’t raise their hand]

African-American female facilitator: Two of you don’t agree with your colleagues and I took a mental note of who they were. [makes eye contact with the African-American male deputy and a solitary white male deputy] You. [gestures at the solitary white male deputy] Why did you not agree with your colleagues?

Me: It doesn’t matter who’s doing it, racism is racism.