We live in a country where a fundamental value is equality. We have an African-American president. Women can work in just about any job that men can (and earn almost as much). The federal government recognizes gay marriage in the 17 states that allow it.
We, as a country, have learned from our mistakes of the past — and are now inclusive, open-minded and equal, right? Well, not quite.
Most of us like to think we are unbiased. However, despite the gains we’ve made (and we have made major gains), we still carry deeply ingrained biases against people who are different from us. Studies have shown that even those of us who are consciously committed to equality still hold subconscious prejudices.
We may not be aware that we have these biases (and, if asked, we would probably deny it), but that can make them even more dangerous.
Without our even noticing it, our culture teaches and perpetuates these deep-seated beliefs. Studies have shown that children as young as 3 begin to develop negative attitudes about other racial or ethnic groups, often to the surprise and concern of their progressive, well-meaning parents.
The Implicit Association Test, developed by psychology professors at Harvard University and the University of Washington, is a tool to explore these hidden biases. Anyone can take the test online; just go to implicit.harvard.edu to gauge your subconscious beliefs about race, gender, sexual orientation or weight.
You may be surprised by the results. I was.
When I first took the test, my initial reaction was to question it. But as I learned more about implicit bias research, I began to trust the test and understand that confronting my biases, although uncomfortable at first, is a good thing.
The Implicit Association Test discloses something important, not only about ourselves but about our culture more broadly.
Although our prejudices may be less explicit than they were 50 years ago, they still exist. And these biases can guide many of our important decisions, even if we are unaware of them. Our biases can affect who we choose to hire or promote, where we decide to live, who we choose to be friends with or marry, and how we reach a jury verdict.
By admitting that we still have biases, we can begin to challenge them in ourselves and in our children as well. Research has shown that although these hidden biases are widespread, they are not unchangeable.
There are a number of ways that you can begin to dismantle unwanted prejudices. Live, work or travel in places where you are the minority, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Hire people who are different from you, and challenge your stereotypes. When you notice yourself reacting in a way that reflects ingrained stereotypes (say, complimenting a little girl’s outfit, while you ask her brother about his favorite sports), change course.
Likewise, as parents, we have the opportunity to challenge the cultural stereotypes that our children are inundated with every day. Encourage your children to seek cross-racial, cross-gender and cross-cultural friendships. Avoid TV shows and books that support stereotypes about women and minorities. Resist the temptation to spout cliches about progress, and instead, speak honestly with your kids about race and inequality, and about combating prejudice in our world today.
For my work as a civil rights lawyer, perhaps the most important lesson of the test is that prejudice has not disappeared. It has simply changed form.
As our expressions and understandings of bias change, our policies must change with them. Many of our civil rights laws were enacted in the 1960s, when the primary goal was to eradicate overt discrimination. Civil rights laws have struggled to adapt to a world in which bias still undeniably exists but is rarely as visible or overt as it once was.
In this changing world, policy-makers, employers and advocates who aim to combat prejudice need to expand their focus. We cannot afford to concentrate simply on explicit displays of prejudice, such as racist epithets or blatant sexual harassment.
Instead, we must also consider subtle expressions and patterns of prejudice, such as managers’ comments about employees who are different from them not being a “good fit” or a “team player,” or hiring patterns in which the successful applicants are disproportionately male or young. And in all of this, we should remember that even the most well-meaning and equality-minded among us are capable of biased thoughts and actions.
In this brave new world, enforcement and expansion of our civil rights laws is as important as ever.
Carol Garvan is an attorney at McTeague Higbee in Topsham, specializing in discrimination law. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.