May I offer you a puzzle that I would like you to experience? Please take a moment and identify the confusion in the following story:
A father and his son, while driving cross country, end up in a terrible car accident. The father dies at the scene and the son, bloody and badly injured, is rushed to the hospital. In the operating room, the surgeon looks at the boy and shouts, “I can’t operate on this boy. He is my son.” Fifty to 75% of people have stumbled in finding the solution. The solution, recounted in Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (Delacorte, 2013), is this: the surgeon is the boy’s mother.
Blind spots, or implicit bias, or hidden bias is the tendency to make hair-trigger associations. Our unconscious takes over, and from among those thousands of mental artifacts and images housed in our brain, we come to a snap judgment or evaluation of a different person. We are left wondering in a conscious moment, “Now why did I think that?”
In the story above, the very word surgeon was associated with a male by the majority of readers. This is because of the history of gender-association in the medical profession. We could change just one word in the story. “The nurse looks at the boy and shouts, ‘I can’t operate on the boy, he’s my son!’” Then the dilemma would have been easily solved—but not for the right reason!
Now, I offer you a second, more recent story—except this time it is altogether true. On Tuesday, May 29, Starbucks closed more than 8,000 stores to educate its employees in the science of implicit bias. They explored those unconscious attitudes, perspectives, and assumptions often triggered when encountering the “other.”
This decision by the Starbucks’ CEO arose from the April 12, 2018 arrest of two African-American men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson. The two men had been sitting in a Philadelphia Starbucks awaiting a visitor who was a part of a real-estate transaction. The Starbucks’ employee assumed that two black men “hanging out” in the store, and not ordering a product, must be up to something nefarious. Video of the arrest of the two gentlemen, filmed by another customer, and taking place over the protests of a white customer, triggered a worldwide conversation about race, prejudice, and of course, implicit bias.
How pervasive is implicit bias? According to experts in research on implicit bias, implicit bias is resident in every person they tested but in varying degrees. In-field testing shows that real-time bias continues, and is widespread. For instance, white job applicants get about 50 percent more call-backs than blacks holding the same qualifications. College professors are 26 percent more likely to respond to a student’s email when it is signed by Brad rather than Jaquan. And, physicians recommend less pain medication for black patients than for white patients with the same injury was what we learned from the 2004 Institute of Medicine’s healthcare disparities research.
How Martin Luther King, Jr. Addressed Bias
But implicit bias is not new. One of the classic exposures of implicit bias came from the civil rights era. Dr. Martin Luther King insightfully attacked implicit bias in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. King was responding on April 16, 1963 to the “Christians-should-model-law-and-order” criticisms of southern white clergy against the Civil Rights Movement. We did not have the language, then, but the indictment of bias is central to what he wrote:
“You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. I am sure that none of you want to rest content with the superficial kind of social analysis that deals merely with effects and does not grapple with underlying causes. It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro Community with no alternative.” [Emphasis supplied]
King skillfully called out the implicit bias of his colleagues by appealing to reason and justice.
How can we become aware of the implicit bias in each of us? We can first begin the process by assessing personal attitudes and biases using the Harvard Implicit Associations Test at https://implicit.harvard.edu/.
Second, can we honestly acknowledge that all of us are prone to make snap decisions on surface appearances? Please indulge my premise—each of us reflects implicit bias in varying degrees—whether gender bias, or racial bias, or class bias, or nationalistic bias, or cultural bias, or numerous others. These biases are triggered by overriding the sub-surface differences among us, and losing individuality to a stereotypical association. Let me illustrate.
I shall never forget my first trip to Africa 30 years ago. It was the trip of a lifetime. I had desired to visit what we warm-heartedly called “the motherland.” Accordingly, I was steeping myself in the art, culture, and writers of the continent. I landed in Lagos, Nigeria but my clothes were mistakenly sent to Cairo, Egypt. My host, seeing my challenging condition, arranged for me to receive some beautiful and colorful Nigerian garments to wear. Then my host said to me, “Dr. Pollard, let’s go to town center in Lagos so that you can see the city.” Dressed like the exquisite Nigerian, that’s exactly what we did.
While strolling downtown, a little Nigerian street child of no more than six or seven years-old, and his little brother (I assume) approached me. With his upturned palm he began speaking in Yoruba (a tribal language of western Nigeria). I played along by nodding as if I understood his attempts to get me to give him a donation. After about two minutes of entertaining his best and most animated appeals, I finally said to him, “I am so sorry, but I don’t understand a word you are saying.” Then the strangest thing happened. At the sound of my American accent, a smile crawled across his face as he turned to his little companion and began speaking in perfect English. Giggling, he said to his little companion, “Hurry, hurry! Come over here and meet the black white man.”
I expected that I would be welcomed as a son of the soil, and of course, I was accepted during my three-week stay. However, in that moment, the assumptions of my African-ness were restructured by the reality of a small boy’s insight. My little visitor’s quick and comical analysis revealed a profound insight. Surface appearances can trigger responses that confuse situations. People may look alike, but subsurface differences make the difference.
Can we honestly acknowledge that all of us are prone to make snap decisions on surface appearances?
And that’s the third point—let’s do the critical second look at our assumptions about others. Let us view them through critical lenses of their individual story and experiences. That requires that we get to know them and to dialogue with them. And to “see” them.
So, let’s go back to Starbucks. The tendency to associate a black male with “trouble,” “criminality,” and/or “social deviance” is unfortunate, but all too common in our society. In fact, from their earliest years, black boys suffer from implicit bias. According to an April 5, 2018 article by Valerie Strauss published in The Washington Post, “Implicit racial bias causes black boys to be disciplined at school more than whites, federal report finds.” As early as kindergarten, black boys suffer disproportionately from bias. So it’s no surprise that Nelson and Robinson were singled out on that April day. What is surprising is the comprehensiveness of Starbucks response. My prayer is for this Starbucks moment to be transforming for our society!