He's Black. What Do You Mean He Can't Dance? Check for Your Biases When Things Get Bumpy

Vol. 2, No. 1

Vernã Myers, Esq., principal of Vernã Myers Consulting Group, LLC (VMCG), is a nationally recognized expert on diversity and inclusion within law firms, law departments, and law schools.


From Moving Diversity Forward, Chapter 8


In this article, learn:

  • Why our minds conjure up the image of someone white and male when we hear the words “pilot,” “doctor,” or “executive”
  • Why stereotypes keep us from seeing the person in front of us
  • What implicit bias is and how it may differ from our explicit beliefs
  • How to find more about our own implicit biases
  • How to correct for our implicit biases


As a consultant, I am always on a plane. I can take two bins from the stack, throw them on the conveyor belt, whip off all my outer layers, remove my shoes, dump them in the first bin with my Ziploc bag of essential liquids, snatch my computer from my tote, place it the second bin, and have them along with my suitcase rolling toward that TSA-manned X-ray box in thirty seconds. So, as a seasoned flyer, I was pleasantly shocked one day when just as the plane soared to 30,000 feet, the pilot began to speak over the public address system, and it was the voice of a woman. I was so excited. It’s a female pilot! Pilots are so rarely women, and I was just thrilled to be riding with a woman who had not only broken through the glass ceiling but was reigning in the stratosphere. However, later into the flight, we encountered terrible turbulence, the ride got bumpy, and the plane started bouncing up and down. I thought, “Oh God, I hope she can drive!” I was so worried that it didn’t even occur to me that my thinking was a problem. Not until I was on the return flight and the pilot was male and the plane began to experience turbulence did I notice my gender bias. The pilot is almost always a man, and it is often a bumpy ride. I couldn’t ever remember thinking, “I hope he knows how to work this vehicle.” Yes, I have been afraid for my ultimate safety. I’ve wished I had read the safety card in the back of the seat and watched the video more carefully, but I have never questioned the competence of the pilot through the lens of gender. I have never wondered if he was “qualified.”

Where did this bias come from? After all, I am a woman and I can drive and I know many men who can’t. However, somehow, when the ride gets rough, I feel safer with a man. At the beginning of the trip, when I heard there was a woman at the helm, I had been all “Rah-rah! Diversity!” But the minute there was a problem, I lost my enthusiasm.


Our Problem Is Implicit

My problem isn’t that I believe that women are incapable of “manning” large, fast-moving engines. To the contrary, I actually assume any woman who has become a pilot must have overcome great odds and therefore be excellent at what she does. My problem is that my explicit belief is not the whole story. As I am starting a workshop, many intelligent, kind, and caring people come up to me and say, “I believe in equal opportunity and fairness. I don’t have a biased bone in my body.” I don’t know how to tell them that unless they are aliens, the bias is not only in their bones but also in their brains and probably in their behaviors. I understand what they are trying to tell me. They are trying to assure me. In other words, “Hey, Ms. Diversity Lady, I am not the problem; I am a good person, and I treat everyone the same. I have nothing against black people or any other group of people.”

Many of us believe that bias has to be intentional and conscious. We believe that if we had stereotypes for or against groups of people, we would certainly know it. Bias is not about being good or bad; it’s about being human. The more I meet and work with white people who care but are still in the early stages of their journey, the more I realize that the biggest barrier to racial progress is not their explicit biases, but their implicit ones.


Get Familiar with Your Implicit Biases

When we are not conscious of the stereotypes and assumptions we are keeping, it is called implicit bias. Our implicit biases come up quickly and naturally, especially when we are in stressful situations. Every day is filled with turbulence, and, as humans, we are programmed to make quick decisions for our own survival. Most of us move toward the path of least resistance. However, countering unconscious bias requires us to see what we are doing before we get too far down the path, stop the movement, and back up from the bias. The first step on this road is to admit you have biases. The second is to get familiar with what they are. However, the initial admission can be a problem for many well-meaning people who pride themselves on being open-minded and supportive of the principle of equal rights. If you can’t own up to having biases, you can’t see them or catch yourself unconsciously acting upon them. Our second step, getting familiar with your biases, isn’t easy at the outset either. They usually have to be pointed out to us until we get into the habit of looking for them.

Unintentional Biases: Katrina Survivors

During the Katrina disaster, there was a great deal of discussion about racial bias in the media accounts of the survivors and how reporters were characterizing black and white victims of Katrina differently. The two published pictures below and their interpretations were used to illustrate the point. In the top picture, there appears to be a young black person; the description reads, “A young man walks through chest deep flood water after looting a grocery store.” In the picture below it, two white individuals are reportedly “finding bread and soda from a local grocery store.” It is hard to explain why “looting” is used for one victim and “finding” for the others since there were no grocery stores open and conducting business. “Finding” is not “buying.” So why is the black person described as a criminal and his fellow white victims as industrious? The reporters are reporting what they see, but perhaps the scene is being interpreted through stereotypes hidden in their unconscious minds.1

Remember when we talked about Malcolm Gladwell’s research? He also discussed a concept referred to as priming. Priming is a concept that refers to subtle triggers influencing our behavior without our awareness of such influence.2 We talked about this in the last chapter. The reporters, like all of us in the United States, have been “primed” to see the black men, especially young black men, as criminals. This was the same issue that my friend Nan and I ran into that night on Wall Street. There are many white criminals, but we have been primed to see white people as good law-abiding citizens. So when the reporters are primed by these stereotypes without knowing, it influences what they report.


Take the Implicit Association Test

Luckily, some very clever scientists have done us all a favor by developing the Implicit Association Test, or the IAT.3 This test, which was launched online in 1998, is a great way to help us face the fact that we all harbor stereotypes, biases, and assumptions for and against groups of people. I am grateful for the IAT because it has provided us with information that pierces through our denial, but also takes away our guilt. Social scientists know that sometimes people have thoughts and feelings about themselves and others that they don’t want to share publicly and that individuals possess attitudes they don’t know they have. The web-based test measures the attitudes and beliefs that people have about other groups that they are unwilling or unable to report. In addition to the Race IAT, there are many other tests that you can take (e.g., Age IAT, Gender-Career IAT, Arab-Muslim IAT, Sexuality IAT). Each test takes about ten minutes. First, you are asked to share your explicit views with regard to the issue or group to be measured by the particular test. The next part of the test requests you to classify a set of words, images, or names.

The Race IAT measures your racial bias by timing how quickly you can associate a black face with a pleasant word as compared to the speed with which you can match a pleasant word with a white face and vice versa—how easy it is for you to associate unpleasant words with the image of a white person, as compared to a black person. At the end of the test, you will be told whether you have a slight, moderate, or strong automatic preference for European or black, or no preference at all.

I encourage you to go to the IAT website and take the Race IAT. If you are white and end up showing a preference for Europeans, don’t worry. You are in good company. Of the millions of white and Asian Americans who have taken the test, 75 to 80% reveal an automatic preference for whites. Sadly, almost 50% of black people demonstrate a bias in favor of whites as well.4 This should also not be a surprise. We have all been taught or intuited that white is good and black is bad, even if we don’t believe it. Those lessons are hard to erase. We’ve all been breathing in the same air. Even as we attempt to teach our kids differently, the Race IAT testifies to the pervasive nature of these racial lessons. Children as young as five years old who have taken the test show the same pattern as white and black adults.5

I stated earlier that our problem is not explicit; it is implicit. Most of my white clients find themselves surprised when their tests show a bias for European Americans. They tell me that the test must be wrong. Or they argue that they are left-handed, or that they were distracted when they were taking the test and this accounts for their results. They wonder aloud how they would score if, for example, the order of the test changed, or the first task was on a different side of the keyboard. I tell them what the scientists have explained to me: none of it matters. The test is capturing a real and large effect. If you want, you can take the test several times to see what, if anything, changes about the outcome. Also, you will see that the site provides answers to a long list of frequently asked questions. Millions of people have tried their best to make their Race IAT test results match their explicit views but most have been unsuccessful.

I have to admit that I was relieved by the results of my Race IAT score, but I know what it feels like to show a bias on the test that is different than what you explicitly believe. I took the Career-Gender IAT, which measures the how quickly the test taker matches female names with careers and male names with family- or home-related words and vice versa. Even before the computer told me my preference, I knew I would show an automatic preference for men and careers. In my distress about the results, I reminded myself of how I attempt to console my clients. I say, “It’s not your fault. This is to be expected. We have been bombarded with these messages forever.” We have to be able to accept our biases. If we cannot accept them, we cannot see how they hamper the way we want to relate, operate, and support others who we see as different.


Use Your Explicit Beliefs and Values to Correct Your Implicit Biases

Those on the Project Implicit Team and other researchers have taken the results of the IAT a step further and determined that the IAT test score predicts how people behave in particular situations. When I interviewed Professor Mahzarin Banaji, one of the test creators, about what the Race IAT suggests about our behavior, she explained,

One can no longer walk away from the data by saying “but these are artificial laboratory tests”—the test has been shown to predict people’s behavior in over 50 studies done in real-world settings like business, politics, and medicine. It predicts who will be hired, who will be treated well, and how comfortable one is in the presence of another.6

Some people feel so discouraged when they learn about implicit bias and hear that it is predictive of behavior. They plead, “Don’t my conscious beliefs and values mean anything? I just can’t accept that I have these biases and I can’t do anything about it.” I am happy to respond, “Yes, the IAT shows your automatic response, not your ONLY response.” It is your explicit beliefs that black and white people are equal and your value of fairness that will make you commit to keeping watch over your biases and learning to minimize them. Professor Banaji put it this way,

The data from the IAT tells us what we are likely to do, who we might be under certain circumstances. But let us remember that knowing that we are likely to be the sort of people we have no wish to be, however disappointing, is powerful knowledge. It is our conscious thoughts and values that can get us out of the mess we create unknowingly. This is possible because the arguably greatest gift that evolution has bestowed on Homo sapiens is the ability to imagine a future unlike the present and to do something to get us there.7


Steps You Can Take to Check Your Automatic Responses

It is probably not possible for us to get rid of all our biases, nor is it desirable. Our brain’s way of sorting through lots of stimuli quickly is what allows us to move through the world and survive. What we need to learn is how to slow down the biases that betray our values long enough for us to act in a way that is more aligned with what we believe.

To give you an idea of what you can do when you catch yourself acting according to your unconscious bias, below are some conscious steps you can take to create the future that we all want to be a reality.


How to Use Your Explicit Beliefs to Check Your Automatic Responses:

  • STEP ONE: Work on recognizing your biases—notice when and where they pop up.
  • STEP TWO: Stop the behaviors that naturally follow these biases.
  • STEP THREE: Remind yourself of what you really believe and value—pay attention to what is true instead of what you fear based on your stereotypes and biases.
  • STEP FOUR: Substitute new behaviors that are fair, and act to minimize the biases.
  • STEP FIVE: Expect to make new discoveries about yourself and others.
  • STEP SIX: Find ways to make up for the initial biased behavior.

Now, I want to tell you a story about how I learned these steps. Years ago, I had been up all night nursing my sick child. I was in a frenzy by the time we arrived at his doctor’s office early the next morning. His regular physician wasn’t there. A very young, petite South Asian woman wearing a white coat and a stethoscope around her neck walked into the exam room and introduced herself to me as the doctor. Without knowing what I was doing, from almost her first statement, I started questioning—or should I say interrogating?—her: “So, have you ever taken care of kids with these symptoms before? How many?” Also, she spoke with an Indian accent, so when she answered my questions I would add in a raised voice, “What? I don’t know what you are saying.” It was like I was a member of a medical licensing board and acted as if she were lying about being a doctor—I treated her like she was an imposter.

Then, somehow, I caught myself. Somewhere in the middle of the inquisition, I became aware of my posture. I was on my heels leaning back from her; my arms were crossed, and my tone was stern. I don’t like to imagine what my face looked like. “What are you doing?” I asked myself. Then I realized what was happening and why—I was treating her this way because she was a young Asian woman. Her youth and diminutive stature brought up additional biases for me. I knew right then that if a white man had walked in that room, even without a stethoscope or introduction, I would have immediately felt at ease, in the right place with the right person—in good hands. If he had been young and short, I probably would have been a little uncomfortable, but I would have reasoned that he was some Doogie Howser type, brilliant and beyond his years. If it had been a black woman, I am sure I would have been at least friendlier and more trusting. Yet, my automatic response to this Indian woman was that she wasn’t qualified to take care of my son.

Below are the steps I took to check my automatic responses.


Personal Experience: Using My Explicit Beliefs to Counter My Automatic Responses

  • STEP ONE: I became aware of what was happening.
  • STEP TWO: I stopped. I could have kept going on. I was the worried, frantic mother; she wasn’t my son’s real doctor; and my child was sick. I didn’t know her. Why shouldn’t I question her? There were many excuses available, but I knew I was wrong. So, I said to myself, “Cut it out.”
  • STEP THREE: We must have been ten minutes into the interaction by then. I felt terrible, but I went into self-correction mode. I changed my posture and leaned into what she was saying. I relaxed my face. I softened my stare. I started listening instead of questioning. I stopped pretending that I couldn’t understand what she was saying. Once I stopped resisting her, I realized she was speaking perfect English.
  • STEP FOUR: Changing my behavior made it easier for me to recover my conscious compass. I replaced my negative stereotypical thinking, my implicit response with my explicit beliefs. I talked to myself, “You believe that people of every background are smart and competent. She stated that she was a doctor. She has on a white coat. She is working at this reputable institution. There is no reason to doubt that she is a highly capable doctor.” When she explained what she thought about my son’s illness, I nodded my head up and down. When she asked me a question, I was forthcoming with the information and openly shared my concerns.
  • STEP FIVE: Once I settled down, I discovered that she was not only competent but calming. By the end of the interaction, I realized that I really loved her approach and style. I actually liked her better than my son’s usual physician.
  • STEP SIX: My son was feeling better by the end of our appointment. As we were leaving, I made sure she knew how much I appreciated her. I smiled as much as I could, repeated many “thank-yous,” and offered several compliments. I did not apologize. I was too embarrassed. However, whenever I saw her after that day, I made sure to greet her warmly, inquire about her health, and update her on my son’s health.

I was shocked and ashamed by my initial reaction to this woman of color. However, it was the fact that I could see what I was doing that allowed me to correct my behavior. I comforted myself all that day by saying, “Well, at least you caught yourself.” I tried to remember S-A-M-E from Chapter Five. I had Stopped pretending. I punted on the Apology, but I had tried to acknowledge how sorry I was by being solicitous afterward. I had made a Mistake; mistakes are part of the process, I told myself. Once I realized my mistake, I stayed Engaged.

I am not fooling myself. She was so pleasant throughout the whole exchange, but I am sure she knew exactly what was happening. People of color are used to being underestimated, although I think it is particularly disappointing when the prejudice comes from someone who is similar to you and whom you feel should know better. I’m certain that I was not the first person who had misjudged this wonderfully talented, small, short, young South Asian physician. Sadly, I thought about my then husband, a black doctor, who had been asked several times by new patients who came to his office, even with his white coat on, “Where’s the doctor?” I hated that I had made her work so hard—that I had committed a microaggression against her, adding to the many slights she had already experienced. I found myself just grateful that she was willing to persevere through my ignorance and that her grace allowed me to find my explicit self.

When I am brave enough to share this story with people, they try to excuse my behavior by suggesting that I was not myself: my son was sick, and I had been up all night. All this is true, but it is still bias that informed my behavior. Having said that, I think my sympathetic audience has a point that we need to examine. Our automatic responses get the best of us when we are in difficult situations—such as when the turbulence comes—when we are afraid and are looking for someone whom we can trust or when there is a lot at stake and we are determining who should handle an important matter or relationship.


Change Your Brain’s Diet

When I spoke with Professor Banaji, I asked her what else she thought we could do to change our behavior so it doesn’t conform to our implicit biases. Her suggestion is one that we have already started working on as part of the BASICS in Chapter Six of this book—expand your life to include information about the culture and experiences of those with whom you are not familiar. She explained,

The brain needs a diet that is healthy in the same way the body does. Some of us are smug about this. We say that we live in a big city, a liberal environment, and that therefore we are protected from bias. But I would argue that if you live in a relatively more diverse city like L.A., you may be at greater risk for bias than somebody who doesn’t hear and see the regular creation of stereotypes. But here’s the critical thing—cities like L.A. afford us social experiences (a diet) that is more balanced and with more options. If you actually partake of it, really partake of it, through the people you count among your best friends, your intimate relations, the music you hear, the media you consume more generally, the roads you travel, there the daily diet can change the associations that the IAT detects. Every choice, every decision becomes relevant in the same way as the number of calories we consume. Think molecular when it comes to changing your mind.

What are the daily, small units that are consumed?

Somewhere near the end of my interview with Professor Banaji, I confessed to her my embarrassing Indian female doctor story. Mahzarin is Indian and petite just like the doctor in my story. Instead of shaming me, she proceeded to tell me two of her more recent biased moments. It was like we were comparing war wounds. “You did what? Please, girl, let me tell you what I said the other day.” We were following one of the guidelines we evoke in all our trainings: “No shame, blame, or attack—yourself or others.” This guideline and another, “Keep a self-focus,” is what we need to work against our biases and the behaviors that follow.

In this article, I have tried to be open and honest about my struggles as a way of keeping a self-focus; and my hope, of course, is that these admissions will not invite blame or shame from others. I am hoping you will say, “Well, if Verna– has these biases, I can accept that maybe I do, too,” and then you will be inspired to go looking for your own. I truly believe that if we can accept our implicit biases, start recognizing how they impact our behavior, and begin using our explicit good selves to examine our choices on the cellular level, as Professor Banaji suggests, we will change our behaviors. Our new and healthy ways of acting will, in turn, change our relationships, our communities, and our organizations. Eventually, with all these changes, our implicit mind will have to reshape itself, and our automatic responses will better reflect what we hold true: All of us are equal, and no one group is automatically better or worse than another.



1. D.A. Martin, Media Awareness Network (Aug. 30, 2005), http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/resources/educational/teachable_moments/katrina_2_photo.cfm (accessed Jan. 21, 2011).

2. Malcolm Gladwell, Blink (Little Brown 2005).

3. B. Nosek, M. Banaji & T. Greenwald, Project Implicit, https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit (accessed Jan. 21, 2011).

4. B. Nosek, M. Banaji & A. Greenwald, Harvesting Implicit Group Attitudes and Beliefs from a Demonstration Web Site, Group Dynamics: Theory, Res. & Prac. 6, 101–15 (2002).

5. Interview with Professor Mahzarin Banaji, in Cambridge, Massachusetts (Dec. 22, 2010).

6. Id.

7. Id.

Moving Diversity Forward


Click here to buy Moving Diversity Forward: How to Go from Well-Meaning to Well-Doing


Pages 89–97 from Moving Diversity Forward: How to Go From Well-Meaning to Well-Doing, by Vernã Myers, 2011, published by the American Bar Association Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity and General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division. Copyright © 2011 by the American Bar Association. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved. This information or any or portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. GP|Solo members can purchase this book at a discount. Click here to order the book.


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