Yesterday, Starbucks shut down thousands of stores nationwide for employees to receive unconscious/implicit bias training. As a researcher on how implicit bias forms and the best ways to reduce it, I was both excited and nervous when I heard about this highly publicized training. Excited, because the topic I spent the last 7 years of my career examining was receiving national attention. Nervous, because I was concerned about how effective this implicit bias training would be. While it is great that awareness of the topic is increasing, this increased awareness does not necessarily lead to changes in attitudes and behaviors. After years of teaching about implicit bias to a variety of audiences, one thing I have learned is that when people become aware of implicit bias there is often times an immediate push-back. I have seen individuals shun the concept, and characterize implicit bias as a societal issue, but not a personal issue. As a Psychologist, I know that people want to maintain positive self-images, and often times learning about implicit bias causes what is known as cognitive dissonance, a disconnect between how a person would like to see themselves (not biased) and how a person is unconsciously operating (biased). This disconnect leads people to be uncomfortable, and can even lead them to rationalize their biased attitudes and behaviors in order to maintain a positive self-image. So, something told me that increased awareness about implicit bias may not be the solution, and in fact may cause more problems. Information is now coming out about Starbucks' unconscious bias training, and I am seeing some red flags.
My first red flag moment occurred when I heard a report on the news stating that the rapper Common was going to be a part of implicit bias training videos. While I admire Common for being a talented artist, an intellect, and a highly influential social activist, he may not be best for reducing implicit race bias. There is research showing that presenting African Americans in stereotypical ways (i.e. a rapper/entertainer) does not help reduce stereotypes. In fact, I recently conducted a study that showed the opposite, counter-stereotypical examples (i.e. African American lawyer, doctor, or other high achieving academic/social statuses) are more effective at reducing implicit, anti-Black race bias. While Common is a highly intelligent entertainer, I’m concerned about whether or not the trainers tested whether or not his intelligence overrides him being an entertainer, and truly changes stereotypes. While many may be able to see him as both, I'm concerned about those trainees who will regardless just see the STEREOTYPE (entertainer/rapper). How do we change them?
Another question I had upon further investigation of Starbucks' training was, are they familiar with the most effective strategies at increasing positive implicit attitudes towards African Americans? While I am sure that much of their training is grounded in the body of research on implicit bias, how many of the specific strategies used in their training were tested ? There is a critical study that was conducted by Dr. Calvin Lai and his colleagues that showed effective strategies to reduce implicit bias. As mentioned above, presenting people with counter-stereotypical examples was found to actually CHANGE implicit bias. Another effective strategy that they found effectively reduces implicit bias is shifting group boundaries. This means changing “us” vs. “them” to “WE”. I’m afraid that one of the exercises used by the Starbucks unconscious bias trainers totally went against this principle. Participants were given a questionnaire that made minority trainees very uncomfortable by singling them out. They were asked to recall the first time they had some of the following experiences:
“noticed your racial identity”
“noticed how race affected your beauty standards”
“altered your communication style (dialed it up or down) to avoid playing into stereotypes”
“went to work with your natural hair without comments or questions from others”
While it is understandable that these questions are no doubt experiences that minorities encounter on a regular basis, reducing implicit bias does not involve talking about the many ways in which minorities experience prejudice and discrimination. In fact, many often hear this information and go “blah , blah, blah..yea we already know this, but I don’t do it. I'm not prejudiced!”. In fact, one of my studies suggests that too much talk about racism may actually increase implicit pro-White bias in some individuals. It creates an uncomfortable environment where minorities have to once again act as the “token minority” and explain all of their troubles in hopes that majority members will understand and change. Starbucks' employees stated that this training made them feel uncomfortable and excluded. TMZ reported, “Our source says this limited scope of questions caused many employees to be confused and even upset….because the questions were not all-inclusive and didn’t seem to bridge any gap between races.” We have years of experience showing that this strategy does not always improve race relations. The specific strategies I use in my workshops are designed to bridge the gap between different groups by highlighting their common identities and experiences, and to expose trainees to new information about African Americans.
As a social scientist, I always question whether or not an intervention's effectiveness has been tested. Often times we use interventions with good intentions, but find out they do not work, or worse, they are doing the opposite of our intended goal. I have created an effective intervention to tackle implicit race bias. How do I know it is effective? Because I examined more than just whether or not the intervention simply increased awareness of implicit bias, but rather did it actually change trainees attitudes and behaviors. After participating in my interventions I have witnessed SIGNIFICANT changes in implicit bias about African Americans. One reason implicit bias training may not be effective is because often the trainings are not guided by this same type of empirical evidence and theory. Also, implicit bias develops very early in childhood with years of experience with stereotypes in our society. For this reason, they are not easy to change and must be challenged using specific strategies. It is imperative that diversity trainers empirically measure whether or not they are actually producing significant, positive changes in attitudes and behaviors. If not, we will just continue to have people who know what implicit bias is, but have no idea what their implicit biases are, and have not been presented with the proper tools to change. My courses and research aim to correct this issue.
For more information on The Bias Adjuster's Unconscious Race Bias Trainings, contact Dr. Bentley L. Gibson:
The Bias Adjuster, LLC.
1 W. Court Square
Decatur, GA 30030
Movie Clip from Lifetime's Harry and Meghan: A Royal Romance
We have created race to socially define which groups belong in which category. Race is not about what part of the world you are from. It is not about your DNA. Race is and has always been about defining who will be the have’s vs. the have not’s? In America, The 1924 Racial Integrity Act defined race by the “one-drop rule,” characterizing “colored” persons as anyone with ANY African or Native American ancestry. This law was created in order to place the White population at a higher social status than ALL other people. While the law was overturned, the rule still applies in our society today in terms of determining privilege. Those who look “White” receive higher social-status than those who have “one-drop” of African or Native blood.
Meghan Markle is the child of an African-American mother and a European-American father. Based on how race has been socially constructed in our society (and in the world at large) with one African-American parent, she is a member of a historically and modern-day stigmatized group. To not be White and grow up to be a member of the Royal Family shows how far Europe and the world in general have come. The monarchy has generally been reserved for members of elite White families. However, there is evidence that Meghan is actually NOT going to be the first woman of African descent in the Royal Family. In fact, in 1761 King George the III married Queen Sophia Charlotte (Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz) who was of Portuguese-African descent. She was a direct descendant of Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a Black Branch of the Portuguese Royal family. There are descriptions of Queen Charlotte, such as Sir Walter Scott’s writing that she was “ill-colored”. A prime minister referred to the Queen by saying: “Her nose is too wide and her lips too thick”. During this time, Europe was dealing with anti-slavery politics. Sir Thomas Lawrence (an anti-slavery intellectual) was an artist who painted Queen Charlotte. His beliefs against slavery led him to paint her exactly how she was…a woman of African descent with beautiful thick hair and lips. While many (including the Royal family) did not want to acknowledge her African descent, this painter thought it was important to show her BLACK features in order to promote anti-slavery.
Queen Charlotte paved the way for Meghan Markle to become a member of the Royal Family. Although Meghan is not the first woman of African descent, she is the FIRST to be acknowledged to be Black (outside of a painting) and to have her Blackness celebrated around the world. We have come a long way! Meghan and Harry will be getting married on Queen Charlotte’s birthday (5/19) at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, the site of Queen Charlotte’s grave. The Lifetime movie, Harry and Meghan: A Royal Romance, also paid tribute to Queen Charlotte with the clip seen above where Queen Elizabeth tells Meghan about Queen Charlotte’s African descent. Because of Meghan Markle being celebrated today, hidden histories about powerful women of African descent are being revealed.
What About the Children?
I have conducted studies showing that by age 5, young children hold stereotypes that White characters are of a higher-status (i.e. smart, pretty, good, preferred to play with, liked more) than characters of color (Black, Brown, Latino, Asian). While times are getting better and we finally have one Black Disney princess, one Black superhero and have even had one Black president, there are still a lack of positive representations of people of color in high-status positions. We need more!!!! The more examples that children get to see of people color being considered smart, pretty, nice, princesses, kings, queens, superheroes and presidents the more children and adults will embrace people of color. Humans have the tendency to stereotype because the brain likes to categorize in order to learn about the world. Its human nature. But in order to stop stereotyping and learn knew information, we must see and experience new things. The more we experience positive examples of negatively stereotyped groups, the more we have to incorporate new knowledge into how we view people. Queen Charlotte and Meghan Markle are new information for the world to see and learn that women of African descent in the past and TODAY can achieve whatever they put their minds to. Queen Charlotte made it possible for Meghan, and Meghan is going to make it possible for future little girls of African descent.
As a Psychologist in the area of children’s racial attitudes, I often find myself traveling back in time to when I was a child learning about race. We learn about the status of racial groups first from our parents, and then from society (peers, teachers, toys, and MOVIES). One of the first movies I ever remember seeing with a majority Black cast was, The Color Purple. My grandma used to love to watch this movie, and I loved to sit up under her all day. I have vivid memories of seeing how broken down the characters looked, the dysfunctional dynamic of the relationships in the film (particularly between the Black man and Black woman), and how everyone looked like me and talked with that southern twang like my Grandma. While The Color Purple was an amazing film, it further highlighted the stereotype that African-Americans are inferior, dysfunctional, unintelligent, and UGLY. While the adult brain can understand that the experiences in the movie are the result of years of oppression in America, the child brain is still trying to figure out his/her identity and how that identity fits into the world that they live in.
In contrast, last weekend I took my 4 ½ year old to her first movie experience to see Black Panther (pictured below with her cousins). She had the opportunity to see a majority Black cast that was powerful, had FUNCTIONAL relationships (community and the Black man and Black woman), intelligent and beautiful. Before the film she had developed an obsession with superheroes (particularly Wonder Woman), and it saddened me to watch her love these characters so much, yet not be able to see herself in them. After seeing the film, I can now hear her running around the house with her sword shouting, “I’m Black Panther” or “I’m powerful and strong like Nakia!”.
When I was a child, my parents told me I was smart, beautiful and strong and gave me books to read about positive examples of African-Americans. But I knew society didn’t think the same by how I saw us portrayed in the media. That is a lot for a young child to handle. Two opposing thoughts: 1) your parents think you are great and 2) society doesn’t think your group is great. The young brain has a hard time understanding two opposing thoughts at once. We need to save these difficult conversations about our history for when they are older, already have positive racial attitudes and their cognitive abilities are more advanced. My research has shown that discussing our oppression and low status in society with young children in an attempt to prepare us for racism further contributes to what is called a White Bias, preference for those with lighter/white skin because they are valued in society. Our children need messages that line up with each other, all telling them that they are valued from parents, books, the community and MEDIA.
I’m grateful for the film Black Panther, because this type of media makes it so that I don’t have to explain to my 4 ½ year old that I think she is beautiful and strong, but society doesn’t think so because they don’t show it on the big screen. Unlike my first movie experience, she got to see society portraying us (and not just one of us, a whole entire cast of us) as AMAZINGLY BROWN.
The Psychology of Prejudice is a course that I teach at Georgia Highlands College. One of the goals of this course is to create a "Universal Identity" in which students are presented materials and resources showing that we have many different ethnic/racial groups within our own genetic make-up. Our minds have constructed race as a method of division among human-beings, but within our bodies there is unity. Another method I use in the course is giving students the tools to gain access to their own implicit/unconscious racial biases. One of the assignments students complete is the Implicit Association Test. This is a psychological measure that allows people to better understand how they perceive members of different racial groups (i.e. Black people vs. White people).
Neveen Abaza, was a student in the course who learned that she has what is called a neutral implicit race bias. This means that she perceives Black and White people equally positive. This is a racial bias that we all should aspire to have but unfortunately do not. Neveen was inspired by her egalitarian implicit racial attitudes as well as the material highlighting commonalities among all humans. She gained a Universal Identity and realized that although we may call ourselves, "Black", "White", "Mexican, "Chinese", etc., these are all relatively modern labels and no one is 100% of any of these groups. This inspired her to learn more about the many different ethnic groups that make-up her genetic code. With the help of Ancestry DNA, she submitted a sample of her DNA for analysis and found out that the labels she has been using to identify herself as "Black" and "White" were in fact socially constructed and in reality she has numerous ethnic groups within her DNA. Not only does she have racial attitudes that are positive for multiple groups, she also has the DNA of multiple groups flowing through her veins.
While Neveen came to the course with positive racial attitudes for multiple groups, this was not the case for all of the students who entered the class. Neveen was the only student who decided to order the DNA test after the course, but the other students could have also benefited from learning about the many ethnic groups that are within their genetic codes. Some of the students had implicit preferences for Black people, some for White people, but by the end of the course many reported seeing that these are social constructions and that their preferences and biases have merely been shaped by their experiences. After the course, they reported feeling more connected to other ethnic/racial groups and desiring to step out of their comfort zones in order to get to know more about different groups in order to decrease their own biases.
Over the past couple years I have created a course called the Psychology of Prejudice that I teach to undergraduate students at Georgia Highlands College. The goal of this course is to focus on psychological theories and research in order to better understand the nature of prejudice and discrimination. The course explores cases of discrimination based on gender, race/ethnicity, class, age, religion, sexual orientation and physical ability, their causes and ways to decrease prejudice. Below are videos of some amazing students final projects in which they were given the task of creating a presentation that proved a specific stereotype wrong. The audio is not the best in some of them but you should be able to follow with the slides. Thank you so much to my wonderful students: Kaleigh Camp, Michael Orr, Rosa Sanchez and Randy Smith for creating such powerful presentations.
Image by BET (link to image)
There are only a few females in the Hip-Hop industry, and this weekend two of them tried to end each other's career in a rap battle. One was more successful at verbally assaulting the other and was crowned WINNER of the battle, but in the end they both ended up FAILING those who look up to them.
After listening to the come-back track of the winner of the battle, I couldn't help but have flashbacks of growing up in New York and the countless physical fights that I witnessed and experienced. Most of the time these fights involved individuals that knew nothing about the other one. All they knew was that they HATED them. In 8th grade I personally experienced this with a girl. After we got into a physical altercation the principal pulled us aside and asked her, "What is the problem? Why do you not like her". The girl's response was, "Because she tries to rule the school". That, and that alone was enough to make her want to physically and verbally assault me every time she saw me in the hallway until one day I just couldn't take it anymore and retaliated back (ending up with BOTH of us getting suspended).
The psychologist in me travels back in time often to this time period in my life in order psychoanalyze the situation and the characters. Hearing this song literally placed me in a time machine. Young, black girls hating each other without ever speaking a word to each other. Young black girls, seeing themselves in each other and wanting to tear the other down to ensure they are not successful at "ruling" anything. Remy Ma and Nicki Minaj , also grew up in NY and probably had very similar experiences in grade school to my own. Only problem is, they are still allowing these experiences to dictate their adult life and with them being famous, also dictating the lives of little Black girls who look up to them.
It is never to early to start celebrating diversity! Black History Month is the perfect time to take the opportunity to introduce your child to positive images of Black people. After a recent poll of my COLLEGE class, I found out that the only things they knew about Black History were:
a) Martin Luther King the Civil Rights Movement
c) The Harlem Renaissance
Put Down the Dolls and Pull Out the Blocks and Race Cars! How to Encourage a Love for Math and Science in our Girls: Inspired by the film Hidden Figures
The film, Hidden Figures opened up with a scene showing a little African-American girl (Katherine Johnson as a child) solving complex math problems. The first 5-10 minutes of the film showed this brilliant child whose parents were willing to do any and everything to mold her natural inclination for understanding numbers. All it took was 5 minutes and this film had tears flowing down my eyes as thoughts of my own daughter rambling off complex shapes distracted me from the screen. "Mom, that is an octahedron!" and "Hey, do you see that rhombus?" . The mother in me saw my 3 year-old daughter's face in this beautiful little actress and it increased my determination to do whatever I have to do to make sure she goes beyond the stereotype of women not being as capable as men in the S.T.E.M. fields.
According to the National Science Foundation, women make up more than half of the workforce but only make up 29% of the science and engineering workforce (NSF, Science & Engineering Indicators, 2016). Broken down by specific fields (see table below of NSF data), it is obvious that something is going on with women finding success in anything that has to do with numbers!
Open Your Eyes! Don't Be BLIND of BIAS! With Commentary on racial differences in the latest episode of Dance Moms
Even if you are not a fan of the Lifetime series Dance Moms, you might find this scene interesting. It is a perfect example of when people from different groups come together and can't for the life of them understand the other's perspective. In this episode, some of the mothers of the dance squad were concerned about the dance piece their children were doing entitled It's Hard to Find Good Help, a tribute to the book/film The Help. The African American and and Latina dancers were casted as the help and the White dancers were casted as the "socialites". While it was obvious that this casting was appropriate for the piece, the African American mothers were rightfully concerned about the dance not being just another stereotypical portrayal of Black people in subordinate, lower-class positions. In contrast, the White mothers could not understand why the African American mothers still felt racism was an issue in America. This a prime example when people from different groups have a hard time understanding one another, mainly due to different life experiences and lack of interacting with large numbers of people from different groups than their own. The African American mothers could not fully understand the plight of the White mothers always having to go out of their way to prove they are NOT prejudice. The White mothers could not understand the plight that the African American mothers deal with on a regular basis of being negatively stereotyped. As Holly (one of the African-American moms) said at the end when attempting to shed light on her feelings, "That is MY LIFE and MY EXPERIENCES". The more we attempt to understand the life and experiences of others, the better we will be able to empathize with them.
The answer is YES! We are not talking about hatred, bigoted, racist, sexist biases but something very basic. Let me share a story with you before diving more into the answer.
When my daughter was a mere 1 year old, I picked her up from daycare and this poor little African-American girl (who was obviously ready for her mommy to get there) ran up to me. After about 2 seconds she realized I wasn't her mother and looked so disappointed because for just a brief moment she thought this brown mommy could be her brown mommy! That is all bias is about during infancy, until about 2 years old, then it gets more complicated (SEE LATER POST). An infant has to be smart enough to know who IS mommy and who is NOT mommy. This is the beginning of bias. Imagine a child being stranded, and really not being able to find their mother. This could be a matter of life and death (or like the story book "Are You My Mother" lol)...but seriously, if an infant were in a situation where they must find their mother they don't have time to sit and wonder "Well what did she look like again?". Instead their little brains (which remember what mommy looks like since they have been looking at her since birth), start scanning for people that LOOK like mommy until they find the right one. No use looking for a Chinese woman if your mom is a Black woman, that would be a waste of time and potentially life threatening.