Implicit Bias: Recognize and Interrupt It

Alexandria Hien McCombs, Humana, Irving, TX

The anticipation of a productive client meeting against the backdrop of the Floridian sun energized me. I glided onto the hotel elevator reflecting on the business priorities and options to be evaluated. Feeling great this morning! My solo descent halted as the elevator stopped a few floors down and a man entered. Self-defense training conditioned me to establish eye contact, assess body language, and note the physical features of this new occupant: white male, about 5’10”, 170 lbs., khaki shorts, and a blue golf shirt. The man seemed friendly yet hesitant to speak. When the elevator reached the lobby level, he scanned my red cape-sleeve dress and asked, “Beautiful dress. Is it authentic?” I didn’t understand. “Authentic as in----?” I paused. “Authentic from China?” he offered. Baffled, I cleverly and truthfully replied, “Authentic from Nordstrom.”    

There was no malicious intent in his comment. I love art manifest in fashion, so this particular dress is my favorite form of wearable art. But his implicit bias—unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that may affect an individual’s understanding, behavior, or decision—directed him to associate my dress with China only because of my Asian ethnicity. My heritage is actually Vietnamese, so his country of origin was also incorrect. But fundamentally, the conversation would have been different if I were not of Asian descent. Implicit bias unconsciously characterized me as foreign in this man’s mind and would run even deeper had I also spoken with an accent. In fact, I encountered a dentist a few years ago who expressed delight—not about my diligent dental hygiene and care—but about the absence of a foreign accent. “You speak good English and don’t have an accent like most Asians,” he complimented. At the time, I subscribed to the demure and respectful Asian stereotype indoctrinated by my parents and simply said, “Thank you.” Today, I would respond with something like, “So do you” and a spirited lecture.

An exchange between two Asian American characters from Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, “The Sympathizer,” sums up implicit bias associated with accents. Ms. Mori, a Japanese American academic observed, “Have you ever noticed how a white man can learn a few words of some Asian language and we just eat it up? He could ask for a glass of water and we’d treat him like Einstein.” By contrast, Sonny, a Vietnamese American journalist noted, “Have you noticed that when we Asians speak English, it better be nearly perfect or someone’s going to make fun of our accent? It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been here . . . [w]hite people will always think we’re foreigners.” The bias permeates both sides. A Caucasian speaking a few words in a foreign language is perceived as worldly, empathetic, and trustworthy: an ally. An Asian speaking English with an accent is viewed as ignorant, foreign, and untrustworthy: an enemy. The “us” versus “them” dichotomy within implicit bias continues to play a major role in inciting unnecessary violence and deadly force in recent law enforcement tragedies.

No one is immune to implicit bias. To test your own biases, I encourage you to visit Harvard’s Project Implicit at https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html. This non-profit organization represents an international collaboration among researchers examining implicit social cognition: thoughts and feelings outside of conscious awareness and control. The goal behind Project Implicit is to educate the public about hidden biases and to provide a “virtual laboratory” for collecting data. The end result is not the elimination of implicit bias, but the ability to recognize and interrupt it. We each have a unique story to tell, so let’s listen to one another with curiosity and openness.