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by Christina Edmondson
Repeat after me, “If you have a brain, you have a bias.”
Whether the audience is college students, church members, or employees of companies, I offer this mantra in order to make clear that our brains (and hearts) hold biases. Then, permission is granted early on to stop the farce and cut the “politically correct” or “color blind” rhetoric so often passing for actual progress. Typically, a collective sigh of relief fills the space as we can now move past denial and into actual self-reflection. The truth is whether pricing vehicles (Ayres and Siegelman), determining competency based on regional accents (Kinzler and DeJesus), and deciding to respond favorably to a job applicant (Mullainathan and Bertrand) or church inquiry email (Wright), our biases play out with real consequences.
Like a file cabinet, from the time of our initial development until now, our brains encounter direct and indirect messaging about the world and the people that call it home. These messages are filed away and they provide for us the blueprint for understanding ourselves and others. They literally provide us with a “what do I do next” script.
“Implicit bias” refers to the unconscious outworking of our stereotyped beliefs. We avoid admitting our biases because they are often incongruent with our core beliefs, and generally favor our own group—but not always. Our implicit biases work themselves out in ways too often unnoticeable to us. Simply put, “good people” are open minded and non-judgmental and most us think we live in that camp.
It’s not surprising that the social pressure of being a “good person” is seen most strikingly in faith communities. These spaces include churches, Christian colleges, and faith-based non-profits. Denial of the presence of implicit bias pervades these spaces. After all, they are filled with good people. What is most curious is that some of these places purport to hold a robust theology around the nature and proliferation of sin, both embodied and institutionalized. Too often in these Christian spaces there is a clear acceptance of “approved” sins, and an avoidance of naming the sins that actually impact how we perceive and treat other people.
Our own racial implicit biases are often at play as we state on one hand that we deplore racism, but on the other hand support politicians, policies, and institutional practices that perpetuate exclusion and disparities. When we find ourselves clinging with all of our might to ill-reasoned or overly proof-texted justifications for the cultural norms that we prefer in our worship services and communities, it is likely telling us that we are desperate to counteract the cognitive dissonance at play.
It is rare to have someone admit that they don’t like the idea of a diverse community, work environment, or church community. Pictures of people representing presumably different racial and or ethnic identities are often placed at the entrance of companies or in advertisements to signal the notion of inclusion. However, it is the deeper dive of diversity that we find uncomfortable. It’s these differences that actually make a differences beyond the phenotypically diverse photo-op.
We are not left hopeless as we think about to how to surface, challenge, and unlearn our implicit biases. For example, according to Lueke and Gibson’s study on the Implicit Attitudes Test (IAT) and mindfulness mediation, participants experienced a decrease in racial and age bias after engaging in meditation scripts or audio prior to taking the IAT. The practices of prayer, contemplation, and being still can help us to know God and God’s image bearers in more accurate ways. Additionally, we combat our implicit biases by increasing our exposure to a variety people in order to provide fuller data to our mental file folders. Seeking out racially diverse role models, especially if we are in the social or political majority, can counteract the negative bias that we only have something to give and teach, not receive and learn from others. Sometime we can challenge our negative stereotypes by articulating them out loud and then wondering how, when, and where these stereotypes were acquired.
Finally, I often tell people to find their Nineveh, like the prophet Jonah, and go there–even if only mentally.
Christina Edmondson is the Dean for Multicultural Student Development at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.