Conversations on Race: Q&A with Dr. Lesa Johnson on implicit bias and how it can be deadly
On May 25, 2020, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis rocked the nation; sparking protests on police brutality and racism across the globe and here in the North State. Chico State Assistant Sociology Professor Dr. Lesa Johnson teaches ethnic and race relations.
She spoke with North State Public Radio the week the officer who killed Floyd was convicted of murder. She said she feared the momentum to address deeply rooted racism sparked by Floyd’s death would too soon be forgotten, as she believes has happened with other deadly police shootings in the past.
To help keep that momentum, Dr. Johnson recorded a series of conversations on race with NSPR’s Ken Devol. In their first conversation, they discuss implicit bias, why it can be deadly and the responsibility we have to recognize our own.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
On the definition of implicit bias
The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University lists implicit bias as attitudes and stereotypes that exist on some type of subconscious or unconscious level and that develop over a lifetime. And these can be attitudes based on race, based on socioeconomic status, based on appearance, or any other criteria. And what that actually says is that these implicit associations are automatically activated by the presence of an attitude object. So attitude objects are those things that form inside of our brains, that create these taken-for-granted notions that we have about why people act the way they act. And we get those taken-for-granted notions according to the groups that we are a part of. So basically, we are indoctrinated or socialized to believe certain things according to the memberships of the groups that we are in at the time. So that's our family group, our community group, our church groups, our school groups, what schools we go to. Those implicit biases, however, actually form in our minds and help us to automatically act in certain ways that end up being discriminatory toward other groups. And so if we are a member of a dominant group, then those implicit associations will favor our group. Again, this can be on socioeconomic status, it can be based on race, it can be based on homelessness, it can be based on any basic criteria. And so it forms this ‘us and them’ type of existence for us and we start fighting with people over access to resources based on these implicit biases.
On examples of how implicit bias can be deadly
People often talk about the police shootings and the idea that so many policemen, once they have shot, specifically Black or brown people, come up with the idea that they feared for their lives. Well, it has been common knowledge quite recently, particularly since George Floyd's death, and before for people of color, that policemen in our nation's fear for their lives so much more often when they are facing a Black or brown person than they do with a white person. And so, they will mistake as in Stephan Clark's, for example, a cell phone for a gun. There are implicit bias tests that even have policemen and other regular citizens mistaking a water bottle for a gun, any object that a person of color will hold in their hands, that is based on the implicit biases that are inherent in the overall culture of the nation.
And then, there are teachers who end up suspending or punishing Black or brown youth and children much more often than they would white children because they suspect that Black children and brown children are being bad when they ask questions or when they don't adhere to white middle-class standards of speech or cultural standards. Then teachers end up seeing those behaviors as somehow culturally inferior and then want to punish them for it. And they don't often know why they want to punish these children but they end up punishing them. Because, you know, when a little Black boy asks questions in class, it sounds like they're disrupting the class. But when a little white boy asks questions in class, it sounds like he is being intuitive or creative or thinking outside of the box. And quite often teachers don't even understand the inherent biases or the implicit biases that go along with these judgments that cause Black children to be punished for just being children.
On how people can recognize their own implicit bias
This is something that we have to sort of settle ourselves with, I guess, on an ongoing basis. So we have to be able to understand or ask ourselves, where have we developed these unconscious biases that we hold? What experiences in our lives, what groups have we been members of that have helped to foster this idea of, for instance, Black dance or Black speech, right, African American Vernacular English as incorrect? Over what period of time and for how long have we been able to garner these unconscious biases, just by virtue of the memberships of the groups that we've been members of?
These implicit biases help to shape so much of our belief about laws, policies, procedures, why is it that we think what is right is actually right? Where did our ideas of right and wrong come from? We have to constantly search within ourselves and question ourselves and this becomes a very, very uncomfortable exercise for people who would like to believe that they just want to do good in the world or that they are just good people. They don't want that evaluation to be challenged.