How to make implicit bias training on campuses truly effective (opinion)
The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and other miscarriages of justice have, once again, awakened higher education to long-standing campus inequities. Both formal and structured conversations and dialogues have expanded — hopefully for the better and toward concrete action steps. Along with institutional pledges, statements and prescribed reading lists, implicit bias and diversity awareness trainings have resurged as resources for faculty and staff members.
It’s estimated that companies spend approximately $8 billion annually on implicit bias and diversity awareness education. Ever since a highly publicized racial profiling incident at Starbucks, such trainings have been on the rise. In a nutshell, implicit bias education focuses on learning to interrupt unconscious stereotypes and attitudes that impact our interactions with individuals and groups based on their identity and other characteristics. Grounded in neuroscience and social psychology, implicit bias education empowers us to mitigate (although not eliminate) the involuntary and unconscious associations that produce bias. We do this by increasing awareness, mindfulness and slower thinking.
But is implicit bias education effective in combating racial bias on college campuses? I was skeptical until three years ago. Then I recognized how such education can, in fact, have a significant impact — yet only if it is expanded and reframed.
My initial skepticism stemmed from critiques that such trainings merely skim the surface of deeply embedded and systemic inequities that are historic and persistent in higher education and other sectors. And what about explicit bias that is so present in the national landscape? Though I was invested in the project, the workshops felt like a Band-Aid approach to larger racial justice and equity challenges on campuses. While a start, understanding the neuroscience of how snap judgments are made about someone’s race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation and other factors seemed to ignore the reality of structural inequities.
But then, as part of a professional development initiative, I was tasked with creating an experimental implicit bias curriculum for student services administrators and support staff. Before moving forward, I did some soul-searching and reflected on past equity efforts in my work. The mental journey was eye-opening for me.
My higher education career began in admissions and student retention at a community college. Six years later, I was hired at my alma mater, a small, selective liberal arts institution in the Northeast. Months before I arrived, students had taken over the administration building and presented a list of racial justice demands to the president’s office. It was the beginning of the 1990s multicultural movement on college campuses, a force that would shape decades of curricular reform and student life programs that we now take for granted.
At the time, I was a young Black administrator who, like so many others like me, was challenged to “fix” campus diversity problems. One day, a student sat in my office and sympathetically told me that I was like the college’s pooper scooper — hired to make the campus look nice and smell clean. She was talking about the surface responses that are ubiquitous on college and university campuses, stopgaps that hold student demands at bay until they graduate. The “big fix” would have been to confront and dismantle systemic biases that weakened the institution’s promises of inclusion, belonging and sometimes a diploma, largely for Black, Latinx and first-generation students. Her observation has stuck with me.
Fast-forward some 30 years later. When I reflected on the student demands made before and during that period, I saw that they have been strikingly similar across the decades. One survey has tracked calls for faculty diversity, more resources for marginalized students, increased attention to toxic campus racial climates, more staff training and so on over a span of significant time with little change. And, while we have made some progress, higher education has largely failed to address the structural inequities that impact not only students but also employees.
Looking back convinced me that implicit bias education in and of itself cannot bring about the change higher education needs to address institutional inequities. While becoming aware of unconscious bias can contribute to larger efforts, we must help other people find the links between interpersonal bias and institutional decisions.
With feedback from colleagues, I set out to expand the lens through which we envision the scope of implicit bias. Along the way, four points have proved to be valuable in creating affirming learning environments for more effective equity and inclusion workshops. For those on other campuses working to organize such workshops, I recommend that you:
Add a systemic lens to implicit bias education. I overcame my skepticism of implicit bias education by doing just that. Once participants understood the interpersonal ramifications of implicit bias, linking its impact to systemic inequities was essential. As an example, Kathleen Osta and Hugh Vazquez have situated implicit bias education in a larger frame of the history, policies and practices that reproduce structural racism.
Over a semester of sequential implicit bias workshops, I was able to introduce this frame and engage participants in reflecting on the relationships between individual, interpersonal and systemic or structural bias. I asked participants to consider how racial microaggressions are often an extension of implicit biases on interpersonal levels that, cumulatively, create systemic inequities for students of color in academic environments. That discussion led several people to interrogate how interpersonal biases can creep into office norms or practices while teaching and supporting students — even if unintentional. Systemic inequities therefore require systemic conversations and solutions.
Engage diverse perspectives. Any session that challenges bias and stereotypes — implicit or explicit — is worth creating space for perspective taking and sharing. Often, implicit bias and other diversity education programs fail because they don’t allow enough room for a true dialogue among participants. Even in the era of Zoom and other virtual spaces, participants value the time devoted to small and interactive group discussions. Engagement tools such as the “social identity wheel” have been useful in getting participants to open up about personal experiences around identity, socialization and implicit biases.
Helping others to walk in someone else’s shoes can be transformative, especially when we’re asking them to unlearn years of socialized bias. In the intermediate-level implicit bias workshop’s closing activity, a participant shared that they needed time to sit with the terminology — such as antiracist, allyship, social justice — as it was new to them. It was a moment of vulnerability, but also a path for reckoning and a chance to hear a different perspective. My hope is that it was transformative and will lead to deeper reflection and change.
Avoid one-offs when possible. In this new age of increased attention to racial justice and diversity, it may be tempting to offer lone workshops to satisfy a diversity checklist or an impatient supervisor. But while well intentioned, singular or isolated sessions have the unintended consequence of leaving employees frustrated with more questions than direction. Whenever possible, create developmental approaches that engage participants with different levels of content over a period of time.
Think education instead of training. I prefer to use the term "education" over "training" when talking about implicit bias and other diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. The notion of training may convey that participants leave with a set of skills after each session. Education, in contrast, suggests that they will depart with a set of tools or constructs that allows the journey to continue. My own journey, in fact, continues with respect to understanding how bias impacts my daily life and the decisions I make.
I have come to see that implicit bias education can be a valuable tool for interrogating and ultimately dismantling structural inequity on campuses. In some ways, it is a good opening to larger conversations regarding campus inclusion and equity. But that will only be the case if we are willing to go deeper and confront the elephant in all our rooms: systemic and structural inequities that often hide in plain sight.
It’s too early to tell if the current racial justice movement will have a lasting impact on our campuses. We’ve been down this road before. But if we are willing to sustain and radically shift conversations, we could fare a good deal better this time around.
Edward Pittman is the senior associate dean of the college at Vassar College and past chair of the Consortium on High Achievement and Success, a liberal arts college consortium.
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