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Implicit Bias: what is it?

When we are biased, we have slanted opinions about a person or group that are based on other opinions, information sources, and often stereotypes. We decide how to feel, think and act.

Implicit bias refers to the attitudes, generalizations or stereotypes that we aren’t consciously aware of that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions. It may come from our past experiences, where and how we grew up, or our parents. Implicit bias can be positive or negative. Our implicit bias may even contradict the way we consciously think and behave.

Implicit bias about people often influences our feelings and attitudes based on characteristics such as gender, race, ethnicity, age, and appearance. And that can affect actions.

For example, implicit bias is noticeable in the justice system. Research has documented the influence of implicit bias in disturbing situations like longer sentences for criminals that possess more Afrocentric features. So, when the subject came up at an immigration law conference, Director of JFCS Immigration Legal Services Jamie Englert paid attention.

“When we advocate for clients and assess their cases, we try to be completely fair and nonjudgmental,” says Jamie. “But what happens when we find one case more emotionally compelling than another, or a client reminds us of our favorite aunt? How do we react to cultural behavior that we don’t necessarily understand or perhaps even don’t agree with?”

So the JFCS Immigration Legal services embarked on a quest to examine their own implicit bias and how it might affect the quality of their work. These days that is done by taking a series of online tests. These implicit bias tests come from a Harvard University project (Project Implicit) and are available on the internet for anyone to take. There are several different areas. After you take a test, you get results explained to you.

The tests are somewhat disarming. There are no obvious questions about how you feel about people of a different race or religion – remember, we are looking for implicit bias, the unconscious stuff.

So what did Immigration Legal Services staff members learn about implicit bias?

“What you learn is to be more conscious of your own implicit bias, and to devise ways to look that your work with that consciousness,” says Jamie. “That may involve asking for a colleague’s viewpoint, or reading relevant case material files without seeing names or photographs.”

Implicit bias has been likened to having a habit. In order to change any habit, keeping up awareness and talking about it helps. As does consciously trying to focus clearly on concrete positive and negative factors, and not on what you think happened. Rely less on gut feelings and more on facts. Challenge your own stereotypic thinking about stigmatized groups by creating a reality-based positive image individual by individual. Organizationally, diversity is the key to reducing implicit bias. Having people from different groups with different experiences, and encouraging their input, often exposes implicit bias of any one particular group against another.

“Part of our mission at JFCS Immigration Legal Services is to zealously represent our clients,” says Jamie. “Now we have extra tools to make sure we are giving all our clients our highest quality impartial service.”

If you are interested in exploring your own implicit bias, visit the Project Implicit website at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html and take one of the tests you feel would be most relevant to you. Tests are free (require some information but no personal data) and there are several there to choose from. Learning about how we can become aware of our own hidden prejudices can help us better understand any number of life’s experiences from different points of view.