Our brains, our minds, our thoughts: are we really in control of them? According to psychologists, the answer is both yes and no. While we are aware of the conscious decisions we make everyday, whether it’s the food we eat, the people we talk to, or the clothes we wear, there are thousands of thoughts that our brain does not explicitly process. Sure, these thoughts may be harmless, such as the color of the bird that flies by or the sound of a faint voice in the distance. However, these implicit, hidden thoughts may also be the root of many of the social divisions we experience in our societies. When a stranger walks into a room, what is the first thing we notice? Their hair, their clothes, their skin color, their gender, right? The exterior appearance and the identities that this person carries creates a distinct first impression that settles into our minds.
Implicit bias is defined as the human tendency to group people subconsciously, in accordance with their appearance or how they identify. These biases are essentially inevitable and we are all subject to them, as they are developed through our childhood, our experiences, and our culture. While implicit biases certainly pertain to all aspects of society, one environment in particular has been the focus of my thesis work: the classroom. Students are affected by implicit biases in several ways, in turn, impacting their experiences throughout their time in school and continuing into their adult lives.
A 2003 study conducted by Cornell University in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that students tend to perform in a manner consistent with opinions other people have about their particular race or gender, a phenomenon named stereotype threat. For example, girls who are told that they are bad at math tend to perform worse on a math test than girls who are told the opposite. Imagine a female student in a calculus class. She may feel pressure to perform well due to the stereotype placed on her. This pressure can be as simple as the teacher showing surprise when she answers a difficult question correctly, causing her to fear that any mistake she makes will confirm that stereotype. A 2014 study found that this fear takes up mental energy, making it harder to think on the spot, and emotionally heightens her reaction to mistakes, making her remember the wrong answer as strongly as she would the right answer.
Mary Anne Meeks, a Georgia Southern University researcher conducted a study in 2010 tracking microaggressions experienced by 342 students in a large, diverse high school over the course of four years. The results included students reporting they had experienced a majority of 21 types of microaggressions at least once during their high school careers.
Although my underlying message declares that we, as individuals, are subject to harboring these implicit biases, I want to motivate my peers, teachers, and members of the Episcopal community to keep this in mind going forward and work to counteract the effects. Personally, I’ve found that acknowledging the fact that implicit biases exist within us is already a step in the right direction, in terms of social success and equality. The Implicit Association Test, created by Project Implicit, an organization founded by researchers across the country’s top universities in 1998, provides an opportunity for people to uncover their implicit biases.
In my own experience with the IAT, I was extremely shocked by my results. However, that initial shock and guilt motivated me to reflect upon the way I approach my world. This reflection, I believe, has allowed me to be a more conscientious and understanding human being. I hope I can instill similar individual reflection by passing along this awareness to those in our close-knit Episcopal community.
Once we can acknowledge these biases, we can do everything in our power to limit its effects in our society, allowing all of us, regardless of gender, race, or appearance, to approach our world with an open-minded and accepting perspective.
Heeya Munir has attended Episcopal since the sixth grade. She will graduate with Honors on May 19, 2018. In addition to her involvement in the Thesis program, she participates in cross country, is the Co-Editor of the 2017-2018 Accolade Yearbook, Co-President of the Mock Trial team, and Founder of the Calligraphy Club. She will attend Tulane University in the fall of 2018, majoring in psychology on a pre-medicine track.