Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

My Own Implicit Bias

Implicit Bias at Work

Mosaic made by my sister-in-law Mary.

I love this mosaic made by my sister-in-law Mary.

I hear people say implicit bias is not real. I disagree. It is real, pervasive, and harmful. It affects the actions of police and juries. The NYTimes had an excellent op-ed on the topic.

I experienced my own implicit bias at work twice in the last few days (and probably more times that I didn’t see).

The first was at the African Literature Association Saturday Event with Nigerian author Okey Ndibe. Before I get to the bias, I’ll tell you about the talk.

Okey came to the U.S. to edit Chinua Achebe’s literary journal. He could not get sufficient funding. The journal folded.

The writer John E. Wideman had been on the board of the journal. He was a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where Okey lived. When Okey was unsure how to proceed after the journal closed, Wideman said, “You’re writing a novel, right?”

Without much thought and because he thought he should, Okey said, “Yes.” Wideman asked to see a draft. “If it’s good, I can get you into the writers’ program at UMass.”

After days of frantic writing, Okey sent a draft. He did get in. And he has become a successful novelist and memoirist.

“The moral of the story?” he said. “Lie!” It worked for him.

I was fascinated when Okey said his next novel will involve “Ogbanje.” I’m writing about this in my second book. Stay tuned. I’ll tell you more next time.

Ikenna Achilihu at ALA Saturday event. He showed me my implicit bias at work!

Ikenna Achilihu at ALA Saturday event. He showed me my implicit bias at work!

And My Implicit Bias?

Sitting near me was a casually dressed tall young Black man. I wondered how he happened to be at the event.

At question time he said, “How are you different today from being in America? I see your ‘Nigerian-ness’ shining through, so what has changed?”

A great question! And a surprise to me. I had assumed the man would not ask a question. I was ashamed of myself!

I spoke to him afterwards. His parents are Igbo, he speaks some, but not our dialect. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone. He is now at the Yale School of Pubic Health.

Implicit Bias, Round Two!

On Sunday afternoon the doorbell rang. I looked out the window and saw a young Black man with a clipboard. I guessed he was from an environmental group, canvassing as my son had done in Westport about 20 years ago! I usually do respond, remembering Sam’s work, but I was getting ready to go out.

As I was leaving the house shortly after, the thought went through my head, unbidden (as implicit bias is) and unwelcome. But it was upon me before I could stop it.

What if he was canvassing the house for thieves who would break in when I left? Would I have thought that if he were white?

These are my confessions. Do you have any to share?

US National Committee for UN Women

I was in Chicago for the board meeting of the US National Committee for UN Women this past weekend. During our Saturday lunch we were treated to a speaker from UN Women.

Pablo Castillo Diaz of UN Women, speaker on gender equality.

Pablo Castillo Diaz of UN Women, speaker on gender equality.

Pablo Castillo Diaz, according to his LinkedIn profile, is “Focused on efforts to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence in conflict, post-conflict, and emergency settings; mainstream gender equality in peacekeeping operations; and engaging with the UN Security Council on women, peace and security.”

He had been introduced with something like that description. Even in writing it’s not easy to understand!

He talked about feminist foreign policy.

What did he mean? He used the example of Jimmy Carter. President Carter, he said, “responded to a push from civil society to add consideration of human rights to military actions and foreign aid.” Now it is often part of international agreements.

Concern for women’s rights should be equally mainstream, the speaker said. Agreements on trade & investment, security work, and foreign aid should include gender equality in their framework.

He spoke about the difficulty of ensuring women’s safety from sexual violence in areas where UN Peacekeepers are at work. Many challenges exist, he said. His office is pushing for solutions, including reparations for women who are victims of sexual violence.

Left to right - brother Peter, nephews Tim and Charlie, Charlie's fiancee Courtney

Left to right – brother Peter, nephews Tim and Charlie, Charlie’s fiancee Courtney

Family in Chicago

I used my visit to Chicago to see my brother Peter, his wife Mary, and two of their three sons.

It’s been a few years, and I was really happy for the chance to catch up.

Mary was at work on a mosaic. I saw several she had made which Peter has placed in their patio.

I’ll see the family again in September for Charlie’s wedding.

Sister-in-law Mary at work on a mosaic.

Sister-in-law Mary at work on a mosaic.

Igbo People to Leave North?

Blog reader Charles Oham sent an email. “Was I aware that the Igbo people had been asked to leave the north?”

I said, “I am. But I am also aware that the federal government has warned those responsible for the call not to implement their threat.

“I am still hopeful that Nigerians can some day believe that they belong to a single country. We cannot change history, we can only learn to make the best of what happened.
“The country was created out of disparate elements. We now have nearly 60 years together. That shared history, if we recognize it, can be a basis for unity. But perhaps I am too optimistic.”
What do you think?

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. I especially appreciated your latest blog post, Catherine. It stimulated a lot of though in me, a white American woman and I imagine will do the same for many others. I could relate to your words.

  2. You are correct. It’s real, it’s harmful and it’s pervasive. One can take implicit bias tests re race and gender online. Nobody passes, including black people and women. However, I would gently suggest that shaming yourself is not helpful. This is something our culture has done to you and everyone else. Applaud yourself for recognizing what happened and using it as inspiration to continue working on undoing what culture has done, and continues to do.
    BTW, I intend to blog about such indirect influences soon, taking off from a book I’m reading.