COLUMN: This Harvard professor knows your blindspots better than you do

Expert on 'implicit bias' to speak here

CINCINNATI -- Nobody wants to be a racist.

Well, almost nobody. Our society still has people who appear completely comfortable with their prejudices.

But those are not the people who interest Mahzarin Banaji, a social psychologist and professor at Harvard University. Banaji is an expert on "implicit bias," the idea that even good people have hidden biases that affect the way they interact with people who are different from them.

As painful as that is for many people to hear, it's something that Banaji said she believes most people want to understand.

"Wouldn't you want to know if you had something bad, like a tumor, growing inside you?" said Banaji, co-author of the book "Blindspot." "We care about knowing so we can be better."

Banaji will be at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Friday, Feb. 3 to deliver a talk on the topic entitled "Hidden Biases of Good People." The talk is part of a periodic series called Insights in Inclusion. The series supports Diverse by Design, the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber's initiative to attract, develop and retain talented people from all backgrounds and make our region more inclusive.

"No matter how much we think we lack prejudice or bias toward any particular group, we all are hard-wired for bias," said Mary Stagaman, the chamber's senior inclusion advisor. "It's become clear that bias is inherent. It's very difficult to unwire our brains for it. And the best we can do to combat it is to become more aware of it, understand how it works and build behaviors and structures that help us mitigate it."

To learn more about implicit bias and the messages that Banaji will bring to town, I interviewed her by phone for about 30 minutes. The conversation left me wishing we had several hours more to talk.

Here are excerpts of our interview in the form of a Q&A. The responses are edited for length and clarity.

Q: So why should people care if they have these implicit, or hidden, biases?

A: I would say that human beings, by nature, are curious. They want to know. And the thing they want to know the most about is their own mind because it's locked up in a box up there, and we can't see it. Wouldn't you want to know if you had a talent for something? We would want to figure that out. Wouldn't you want to know if you had something bad, like a tumor, growing inside you?

Knowledge to fix something, to do something with it, is something that is so fundamental to our species. We care about knowing so we can be better.

Q: Is there a broader social argument to be made for addressing these hidden biases?

A: I would say, absolutely. There is a societal benefit in the same way there is a societal benefit about knowing the truth about anything.

We are finding out about things before they can harm us. We're trying to know about them so we can explain why they are happening.

I think we want to know about these biases so we can do our jobs better.

For example, I want to treat all my students equally. It comes down to how hard are they going to work, how much are they going to learn and how to measure what they've learned.

If I learn that the names on their exam booklets are going to trigger a bias, if I'm a smart person, I'll get rid of the names on the books.

If a police officer knows that a black, adolescent carrying a toy gun is more likely to be shot than a white teenager of the same age carrying a toy gun, then I think police officers will have to think about what do they have to build into their systems.

We're not asking people to do anything than what they otherwise would wish to do. We know everybody is motivated to do the right thing, whether they are police officers, doctors, teachers or lawyers.

But we know that our minds have a lot of information. Not all of it is accurate, and we make mistakes. We trip up.

Q: But there are people who have explicit bias and bigotry?

A: I have zero interest in them. As a scientist, all of my work is geared toward dissociation -- a split between who I want to be and who I am. To me, that psychological state is of great interest. It's so simple to be biased and act in a biased way.

Those are people who are very simple-minded, and I find them completely uninteresting.

Q: Is the occurrence of implicit bias greater in more segregated cities because there is less likelihood for people from different backgrounds to get to know each other?

A: I expected that we would see that ZIP codes that have a larger proportion of African-Americans or Hispanics in it would also show whites who have less bias. The data don't show that.

I could live in New York City or Los Angeles, which are considered to be big, diverse cities. But my life, where I live, where I work, can be deeply segregated.

If I walk down the street in New York, and every day I'm observing that there are certain kinds of people who are better dressed than people or certain kinds of people with shinier cars, these are things that my brain is going to learn.

Why do we have bias? We have it because we learned it. If we learned it, we can unlearn it.

Q: Is there some part of bias that is instinctual?

A: I do think the internal mechanism that produces the bias; those for us are the instinctual part. We have evolved as a species to survive. It doesn't surprise us when we jump back from a snake. Or, years ago, when our ancestors jumped back from someone who looked completely different.

In our historical past, that jumping back in the face of strangeness actually paid off.

But today, we care so much about merit that we must now work with people very different from us. I think the very thing that used to not be in our interest today is very deeply in our interest.

Q: How do you avoid just preaching to the choir about this?

A: I think even the people who have prejudices in a sense are good people. Something has happened to them in their life or they've been taught something -- that it is morally wrong to be gay, for example. That actually does change over time.

I think those explicit prejudices are waning very quickly. They pop out of the woodwork. They seem to be lying below the surface, and then a demagogue can bring them out in one speech.

But I have no worries about that because I think it's going to be gone.

I think the data on implicit bias say you need not feel guilty. What you need to feel is responsible. And which American does not want to be fair?

Q: So what's one big message that you want people to take away after your talk Friday?

A: The way we discriminate today is not by whom we harm but by whom we help. In our society, the act of walking over to somebody different from us and hitting them in the face or taking their stuff or doing something horrible to them is for the most part gone.

So we can live these very happy lives by saying I don't do any of that stuff. I'm a good person. So how is it that the world is still screwed up? I think it's because of whom we're helping.

One of the things I might ask the audience to do is think about helping in a new way. Think about not just helping, but also about who is it that I'm helping and what am I doing by that act of helping.

You can register online for Banaji's talk at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. The event starts with a reception at 5 p.m. Friday Feb. 3. The program goes from 6 to 8:30 p.m.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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