How Biased Are You?

It’s impossible to be human, live in our culture, and not be biased, says Soraya Chemaly.

Mahzarin R. Banaji was as an assistant professor of psychology at Yale University in the late ’80s when she was involved in memory experiment, the end of which involved asking subjects, based on a list of names, which people were famous. The subjects routinely and incorrectly made “ordinary” men “famous” ones. 

Banaji was curious: Would the same thing happen if she changed male names like “Sebastian” and “Peter,” taken from phone books and the previous list, to “Susannah” and “Penelope.” In her initial experiments, Banaji found that female names were far less likely to achieve fame in the same way. People, entirely unconsciously, herself included, did not treat women the same way they treated men. They could not say why and did not consider the simple change in gender to be the cause of the evident differences. 

Banaji had found a way to study implicit biases that we all have. And I mean all of us—teachers, artists, writers, doctors, trash collectors, scientists, lawyers, judges, and shopkeepers. Everyone.

Notions of gender have deeply embedded roots in practically all human societies. Gender assignments are made, sometimes with tragic results, at birth and affect absolutely everything from the way parents talk to babies and dress children to the assignment of work and the distribution of value to that work. 

For example, a recent article about our eternally debated gender-based wage gap discussed bias and work by describing the following: “Anthropologists report that among the Suku of Africa, only the women can plant crops and only the men can make baskets. But among the Kaffa of the Circum-Mediterranean, only the men can plant crops and only the women can make baskets. Among the Hansa of the Circum-Mediterranean, only the men can prepare skins and only the women milk. But among the Rwala of the Circum-Mediterranean, only the women can prepare skins and only men milk.” We, of course, have our own variations on these themes, which conservatives think of as “natural.”

Banaji’s work, which first explored the role of gender bias as a primary filter through which people make assumptions about competence, autonomy, ability, and more, was expanded to study other forms of common and unconscious bias. These biases don’t only hurt the people we are “othering,” but also can undermine our own sense of ourselves and our abilities when they are manifested in stereotype threat, defined by researchers in 1995 as “the risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group.”

So, for example, when African American students have to indicate their race on a test booklet, their test scores drop. The same thing happens when girls and women are asked to indicate that they are female. Simply removing the request for people to identify themselves prior to taking an AP calculus test improved test scores.

You can, today, take a simple online test for implicit gender bias. This test has been adapted and is available to assess bias based on sexuality, weight, religion, ethnicity, age, skin tone, and more. Banaji and two other professors, Tony Greenwald (University of Washington) and Brian Nosek (University of Virginia) started a nonprofit, Project Implicit, in 2001. They hope to use their work on understanding hidden biases to improve diversity and inclusion, change our ideas about identity, and innovate new ways to create egalitarian cultures.

No one ever said that the politics of identity and belonging are simple or that transforming culture is a walk in the park. Discrimination, micro and macro-aggression, happens every day, but it usually finds its most effective path in its quiet expression. 

During the past year there’s been a noticeable uptick in public conversation and debate about race and gender. These conversations often hinge on real but difficult-to-quantify realities like privilege and entitlement. Sometimes they pivot on cultural appropriation and subtle forms of racism and marginalization. Others reveal the hidden nature of casual, everyday sexism. 

In difficult encounters, exchanges, and debates, there are always people who insist that they aren’t sexist or racist or ableist or homophobic, and others who mock discourse confronting those things.

But, it’s impossible to be human, live in our culture, and not be biased. All you can do is be aware and considerate as a result. Implicit biases are those we’d like to hide, especially from ourselves. Understanding them is central to understanding how early we acquire them and how pervasive discriminatory lessons are.  

Maybe if we do a better job at it, we’ll end up with one less snide, self-congratulatory privilege tournament

Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.

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