Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Implicit Bias

Can Implicit Bias Be Changed?

Like many of my white liberal friends, I like to think I am not biased against people of color, people with disabilities, Muslims, or anyone different from me, because of that difference.

What is implicit bias?

Explicit vs. implicit bias.

But science has shown that even we, knowing better, have built-in, or implicit bias. It may hard-wired. We cannot simply wish it away. It is not evil intention. We have “inherited” it from our parents, learned, or adopted it unconsciously.

It may be partially to blame for police aggression against black men. When police are “trained” by society to think that black men are dangerous, they may act on that belief, even though rationally they know black men are no more dangerous than white men.

There is an online test which I have taken that helps illustrate our implicit bias.

A major question is this: can we change it?

A recent article in Salon describes how neuroscience may help us.

The author explains that the fear black people experience when stopped by police is justified. The racial profiling is real.

Data collected over recent years shows this. And the occasional remark – that blacks are targeted by police because there is a higher crime rate among blacks – is not based on fact.

Gleb Tsipursky, the author of the article, is a scholar of history, psychology, and cognitive neuroscience as a professor at Ohio State.  He refers to recent events.

He says, “this does not mean that police officers who shot Castile and others did so for explicitly racist reasons. Research shows that all of us suffer from some degree of implicit bias, deeply ingrained negative attitudes associated with certain groups or markers of social identity. The large majority of white Americans — including police officers — are implicitly biased against African-Americans.”

He says we cannot simply get rid of this bias by knowing we have it. “Instead, we need to apply de-biasing techniques that would enable us to counter this implicit bias.”

He describes a method called “de-anchoring, where instead of going with your gut intuitive reaction — which you know is highly likely to be biased — you adjust your inner estimation based on research.”

I love the example he provides. If a police officer knows that blacks are three times more likely to be treated with excessive force, she will think not twice, but thrice! before applying force.

His use of ‘she’ when I expected ‘he’ was instruction itself!

The Invisible Hand

On Friday evening last week Clem and I saw the play The Invisible Hand, at the Westport Country Playhouse. Clem wasn’t eager to go, but I couldn’t find someone else to accompany me (I didn’t try until the last minute), so he agreed to come.

He was glad he did!

“The invisible hand is a term used by Adam Smith to describe the unintended social benefits of individual actions. The phrase was employed by Smith with respect to income distribution (1759) and production (1776).” Thank you, Wikipedia.

The play is a political thriller by Ayad Akhtar. The action revolves around a futures trader who has been kidnapped and held in Pakistan. His ransom is set at $10 million.

I highly recommend the play. Not only is it an exciting drama, but it also raises questions about the morality of futures trading, hostage-taking, and the U.S. role in the world.

Watching the Muslim captors and the American trader is also a window on bias. In the play much of the bias is explicit. But hints of implicit bias are present too, or at least were for me.

Have you seen The Invisible Hand? Will you?

Conversation on Race

At the Unitarian Church in Westport

Ellie, left, and Sonja in conversation on race

And to add to the race talk of recent weeks, yesterday’s service at The Unitarian Church in Westport featured a conversation on race! Great timing.

The ‘conversationalists’ were Ellie Grosso and Sonja Ahuja.

Our congregation now has an “Eliminating Racism Ministry,” with Sonja and Dan Iacovella as co-facilitators.

Dan led the anti-racism group for several years.

I became the leader while we read and discussed several important books on race. One was Anita Hill’s Reimagining Equality Stories of Gender, Race, and Finding Home. published by Beacon Press, a department of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

My friend Ruth was part of the group. She and her husband moved to California last year; we saw them there last summer. She and Jack came back for a visit. Here she is, looking lovely as usual.

We miss Ruth and Jack

My friend Ruth, now ‘living the life’ in California

Our group stopped meeting four years when other activities and events took precedence.

I’m glad the group is back with strong leadership!

I’ve known Ellie since she came to the congregation six years ago. She and her husband Gary, who are white, adopted their black daughter Yeabsera from Ethiopia.

I know Sonja from my Baker’s Dozen Book Group. She is a black woman married to an Indian man.

In their conversation they told the story of meeting.

A year ago Ellie approached Sonja, whom she barely knew. She asked her to take the role of Maya Angelou in a drama Ellie was producing for the church.

For a white woman to come to a black woman and acknowledge her race, then invite participation based on blackness, was a “disruptive act,” Sonja said. Ellie’s approach led to many conversations; yesterday’s was a continuation.

White people find it hard to say “white people,” Sonja said, But black people say “black people” and “white people” all the time! She said it’s not unusual for a couple or group of black people to say,”Wow! Look at those white folks!”

I appreciated the phrase she used – she said we should be color-brave, not color-blind!


Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.


  1. We saw “The Invisible Hand” off Broadway and enjoyed it a lot. But I really loved Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize winner, “Disgraced”. Did you see it? It really covers a lot of issues all at once including race, class and marital! Compelling and I would like to see it again sometime!

  2. Very interesting, Catherine. Thanks for sharing. I’d like to add some thoughts from the perspective of my focus on persuasive communication, thoughts about how to get the most from testing and training as we move forward.
    The causes of implicit bias go deep and far back in time. For example, patriarchal societies have long been saturated with triggers of implicit gender bias. God is “he.” Our species is “mankind” or simply “man.” In playing cards, the king outranks the queen. As a substitute for “everyone,” people say, “men, women and children,” not “women, men and children,” always mentioning the male segment of society first.
    I could go on and on, but I won’t, except to ask that the reader imagine a boy you love growing up in a world where all this saturation is reversed: God is “she,” we are “womankind,” etc. How would this boy turn out? And how would a girl growing up like this turn out? Would simply telling them that women and men are equal erase all the implicit bias?
    That’s why even feminist women usually fail when tested for implicit gender bias. Likewise, many African-Americans are dismayed to find that they, too, fail when tested for implicit racial bias. Well-meaning hospital workers talk to the person pushing the wheelchair, not the patient in the wheelchair, even when repeatedly asked to do otherwise. Many well-meaning, white, able-bodied, heterosexual, cis males try their best not to act out prejudices, but do so inadvertently. Long-established societal practices cause these phenomena. They aren’t the fault of the individual.
    Now here’s the persuasion bit: If you want to persuade people to change their minds or behaviors, stating (or implying) that their ideas and behaviors are wrong (“making the person wrong”) is not persuasive, it’s counterproductive. A person made wrong instinctively entrenches deeper into their original ideas and behaviors. Resistance to wrong making is hard-wired into our brains. Only the most mature and high-functioning individuals change when made wrong, and even they take longer and are less enthusiastic about the change.
    It doesn’t matter if someone really is wrong. If you want them to change, avoid or minimize wrong making language, gestures and facial expressions.
    I don’t believe, or mean to suggest, that current testing and training on implicit bias aims to impart guilt or shame (severe wrongness). Rather, failing a bias test, performing on the test counter to one’s own conscious belief in equality of all people, can implicitly impart guilt or shame (wrongness).
    Thus, in moving forward, we’ll get better results from bias testing and training if we make clear and specific efforts to pre-empt and counteract any sense of personal wrongness.
    It will help to emphasize that implicit bias is not about the trainee, but rather, about society. If the trainee would like to counteract the effects of this societal conditioning, we present ways to do that. This should be repeated in various ways throughout the testing and training process.

    • Thanks, Margaret. I love the point you made about avoiding guilt and a sense of personal wrongness. I agree with you. The effort needs to be to pre-empt and counteract these and make clear that implicit bias comes from the society, not the individual.