Implicit Bias Workshops

Imagine driving down a street and seeing a large green stop sign. Or sniffing a flower that smells like a skunk. Or touching a snowflake that burns your finger. These would make us all stop and pause, because they conflict with our automatic associations about the way our world works—stop signs are red, flowers smell sweet, and snow is cold.

These automatic associations—or “mental shortcuts”—are a natural way for human beings to filter and make sense of the information we are constantly absorbing. But they become problematic when we make them between categories of human beings and social characteristics. Each time we automatically equate African Americans with violence, women with homemaking, senior citizens with frailty, or overweight people with a lack of self-control, we deny individuals their humanity; we make assumptions that are both false and deeply harmful. These implicit biases are often triggered without our conscious awareness. They may even directly conflict with our explicit values and beliefs. And yet, they frequently dictate our decisions and determine our actions, particularly when we are operating under duress.

In an increasingly racially and ethnically diverse world, it is critical that we begin to recognize and understand where and how our own unconscious biases are activated, and, more importantly, how to reduce their effects on our decisions and actions. The good news is that our implicit biases are not set in stone. They can be “unlearned.” One researcher has likened them to habits that can be broken. But first, we must acknowledge they are real, begin to pay attention to when and how they “show up” in our personal and professional lives, and practice alternative responses and actions.

The Charles Hamilton Houston Institute offers interactive workshops designed to introduce participants to the science behind our unconscious associations and to illustrate some of the situations in which these are most likely to be activated, within individuals and within institutions. We strive to create a welcoming and inclusive environment where participants feel comfortable acknowledging and exploring the role implicit bias may play in their personal and professional lives. We stress that having implicit biases “does not make you prejudiced, it makes you human” and discuss how the tendency to take “mental shortcuts” is a universal one. But when such shortcuts unfairly harm others or cause us to act against our own values, we have a responsibility to make an effort to bring them to the conscious level and to reduce their impact. Therefore, we try to de-emphasize “blame,” while simultaneously striving to act in ways that are consistent with our external values and beliefs.

We are able to customize our workshops to focus on research and scenarios that most directly speak to the experiences and interests of the participants. We make the workshop as interactive as possible, and intersperse presentations with group and individual exercises.

For more information on our implicit bias training please contact David Harris at: dharris@law.harvard.edu.