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Student Lawyer

Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

5 Ways Law Students Can Interrupt Implicit Bias

Michelle Ann Silverthorn

5 Ways Law Students Can Interrupt Implicit Bias

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Let me tell you a story about implicit bias. In 2009, I married a man I met on the first day of law school. He is white. I am black. In 2010, we moved to Chicago. By various measures, Chicago is the most segregated city in the United States. Specifically, for black/white divisions, almost all of the South Side of the city is black Chicagoans, and almost all of the North Side is white Chicagoans. I live on the North Side with my husband and our two biracial children. Both of my children can easily pass for white.

I often walk around my North Side neighborhood with my kids. I push them in the stroller. I take them to the park. I walk them to school. And because I am black, accompanied by children who don’t very much look like me, I am often assumed, by often well-meaning parents, to be my children’s nanny. I am asked how much I am paid, when I was hired, do I have any friends looking for work, or if I am looking for work. (You’d be shocked to know how many people try to steal nannies!) I was once told, “You treat them just like your own kids!”

And it’s not just what’s said. It’s what is unsaid. It’s when those very well-meaning parents don’t sit next to you on the bench, because they think you are the nanny. When they don’t include you in their conversations, because they think you are the nanny. When they don’t look you directly in the eye, because they think you are the nanny. When they treat you like a stranger who just doesn’t belong. The thing is, they would never claim they were doing it on purpose, or that they were acting biased at all, until you ask them, “Why do you think I am the nanny?”

I am often assumed, by often well-meaning parents, to be my children’s nanny.

See, this is implicit bias. And it helps explain (in part) the rash of publicly-reported incidents over the past month of white people calling the police on people of color who look like they just don’t belong. In the past few months, police have been called when people of color have been napping in a college dormBBQing in a public parktouring a college campus, and sitting in a coffee shop. It’s because (in part) the people who were so quick to call the police think one thing should only be this way, because they have only ever seen it this way, and cannot adjust their mind to seeing it any way else.

How can we change that? Ellen Hoover did a terrific job outlining how to challenge implicit bias in the law firm and law school setting. Now I want to turn it over to you. What can you, as an individual, do about implicit bias in your everyday life? Here are some ideas:

1. Start with a commitment to being fair and learning how to be fair.

You are a law student, so this should be easy for you to want to do. If you already believe that fairness is the basic goal of how we treat other people, then starting with a commitment to be fair, and learning how to be fair, means you’re already ahead of the curve.

2. Recognize that we all have biases.

It’s important to recognize that these biases exist. We need to stop pretending we don’t notice differences. We do, we all do, even if it’s unconscious. Equally important? Recognizing that our first bias is to believe ourselves to be bias-free.

3. Take the Implicit Association Test.

For the past two decades, Harvard University has been running a research study on implicit bias called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). There are many of these tests – age, weight, religion, disability, etc. The most popular one is the race IAT. The race IAT measures how quickly test takers associate certain positive and negative words (e.g., glad, cheerful, evil, detest) with white faces and with black faces, under highly stressful time parameters. Your test results will show, depending on how much faster you were, that you have no preference, or a slight, moderate or strong automatic preference for white people or black people. That result demonstrates your implicit bias. By the way, almost 70% of U.S. test-takers demonstrate an automatic preference for white people.

4. Examine your circle of influencers.

There’s a great exercise that I’ve done at my job. You can try the online version of it here. You have a glass bowl and an empty cup in front of you. The bowl has beads of six different colors. Each bead is assigned a different race or ethnicity to each of them – white beads for white, black beads for black, and so on for Asian, Middle Eastern, Hispanic, American Indian, and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. Then I ask you to assign beads to the names or categories that I list to represent the race or ethnicity. For each name that you have an answer for, put one or two beads in your cup.

I start with, “You.” Then I continue. “Your significant other or spouse.” “Your neighborhood that you grew up in.” “Your childhood best friend.” “Your favorite teacher in elementary school.” “The author of your favorite book.” “Your favorite college professor.” “Your favorite law professor.” “Your boss.” “Your wedding party.” “Your first mentor.” “Your doctor.” “Your dentist.” “Your mayor.” “Your senator.” “Your president.”

Then I ask you to look at your cup. Is it as diverse as you would have thought? Is it mainly one color? This is your circle of influence. These people influence you in subtle and not subtle ways. This is the world you have built for yourself. These are the sources of the biases that you have in your head, and the result of acting on those biases. What does your cup look like? Who’s in your circle?

5. Get uncomfortable.

I once had a conversation with a white friend where she lamented that she would feel uncomfortable attending an all-black church. I responded that I understood because I have been in more all-white churches than I can count. And in all-white conference rooms. And in all-white elevators. And at all-white schools, bars, weddings, and baseball games. Minorities live and breathe in majority spaces. If you want to start challenging biases, especially ones that are rooted in how you grew up and how you now live, then start entering spaces where you are the minority. Visit neighborhoods that are primarily minority. Read books by diverse authors. Browse websites based around identities other than your own. Continue to take part in new situations where you might feel out of place and learn from your discomfort.

Become aware of your biases. Become aware of your expectations. Become aware of what you say and how you think of people who don’t fit into your preconceived notions. That’s the start of interrupting implicit bias.