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Cutting the Bull – When Implicit Bias is Used to Euphemize White Supremacy

Updated: Nov 2, 2023





It always gives me pause whenever I come across the terms "unconscious bias" or "implicit bias” when it comes to Race in general, and specifically Race as Color and Race as Character. It is important at the outset to distinguish between the kinds of bias whose origins are benign, like favoring frozen yogurt over gelato, or even the desire to date tall men over short men. Everyone has biases that rest in the recesses of the mind, some are always present and others only surface when the subject meets the bias head-on.


This essay discusses the terms when used to mislead the public into believing Racial bias falls within the category of implicit and/or unconscious because these terms are also the go-to explanations for expressions of Racial hostility by people identifying as white toward Black people today. As far as I am concerned, neither implicit bias nor unconscious bias provides an adequate justification for behavior generations old and is consistently reinforced daily through entertainment and political media interpretations.


The attempt by psychologists and sociologists to justify racial biases is similar to how eugenics was justified as evolutionary behavior in the past. White Supremacism and its associated behaviors are provided equivalence with the more benign types of biases creating yet another cover, a euphemism that lasted 28 years so far. In fact, in this 21st century, these terms are used interchangeably with prejudice and to describe Racism itself. Much too often, anything Racial where the specificity is among the binaries of Black and white, superior and inferior, or good and bad, is hidden behind benign illustrations of bias. To provide the necessary magnitude in terms of irrationally biased views, gender, and sexual representations are often presented as examples instead. It is crucial for open, unambiguous dialogue within the context of Race and the relationship between white and Black people because the impression garnered by these terms can be confounding, as is the case with everything concerning the paradox of Race, Whiteness, and White Supremacism.


The sciences of Psychology and Sociology are often the areas of study where the terms unconscious and implicit are interchangeable, a simultaneous equivalency, as though behavior can be unconscious and implied at the same time. Notwithstanding any dichotomy created by these sciences, unconscious actions are impacted by the behavior of people who are not aware of the origins of such behavior, and implied actions occur because while the behavior is known and understood, it is typically covert in its presentation. Either way, supremacist behavior is explained away by couching it inside a brain fog of either complete obliviousness or if at least aware, kept to themselves and not expressed openly generally because they don’t believe the awareness extends to themselves. This is quite disconcerting and another attempt in my view to provide mental sanctuary to many white people in need of yet another gentle way to hide behind the obvious.


For those who wish to perpetuate the notion of synonymy, combining two obviously distinct forms of bias can only be described as, for lack of a better cliché, wanting their cake and eating it, too. In an article written by Joe Caccavale for the website, “Applied,” titled, “What’s the Difference Between Implicit Bias and Unconscious Bias?” he stated:


“There is no difference between implicit bias and unconscious bias. They’re simply two different terms for the same thing. Both refer to our tendency to make judgements based on prejudice and assumptions, rather than indisputable facts and data. And we’re all influenced by them whether we like it or not. They’re the result of evolutionary psychology, which has hardwired us to view the world in terms of social categories.”[1]


The first critical piece of information contained in that statement is the implicit discussion of Race without interjecting Race specifically. The second critical piece is the notion of being hardwired to view the world in terms of social categories. What exactly does the writer mean by social categories? Why is he resigning himself to the idea that the influences of assumptions due to prejudice are static, “whether we like it or not,” implying a particular permanence to those influences? Who did the hardwiring? Who does the hardwiring today, especially in relation to unconscious or implicit biases centered around Race and particularly Black people? Is it Evolution? Is it the science of psychology? The writer seems to think it is a combination of both. The idea we are all influenced by biases, whether so-called conscious or implicit as the result of some evolutionary psychology is a blatant cop-out as though somehow evolution created the ideology of superiority and inferiority, it wasn’t unnatural at all, and that we can like it or lump it. The statement was no more scientific than Eugenics was in its time. Quite simply, generations and generations of indoctrination and conditioning into an ideology of the superiority and inferiority of the Races was placed into the collective psyche of whiteness to craft its social categories and the thoughts and beliefs that came out of it, not evolutionary psychology.


In the writer's statement, one thing that resonated was the tendency to make judgments based on assumptions derived from prejudice instead of relying on indisputable facts and data. I changed the order of the sentence from "judgments based on prejudice and assumptions" to "judgments based on assumptions derived from prejudice." This is because assumption-based prejudice combines both assumptions and prejudice as cause and effect, rather than creating distinct categories for each when making such judgments. Frankly, assumptions are not necessarily prejudiced, and prejudice, which although similar to bias, is more severe since it can translate into discrimination in the workplace, and prejudice is considered overt, and conscious. It makes one wonder, since when did prejudice become synonymous with implicit or unconscious bias? When did prejudiced behavior become unknown to the individual or at least suggested indirectly, as the writer was trying to defend?


In a Maryville University blog written in 2021 on the subject of overcoming one’s implicit bias, many types of benign implicit biases were discussed in an obvious attempt to disengage from the seriousness of Racial bias to those biases engaged in by most people no matter the Race. Two, in particular, were used to describe unconscious and implicit bias. The first was described this way:


“Examples of unconscious biases are present throughout our personal and professional lives. In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell notes that roughly 3.9% of adult men are 6 foot, 2 inches or taller. Yet among a random sampling of CEOs, he found that nearly a third, or roughly 33.3%, fell into this group.


“According to Gladwell, this could be linked to an unconscious belief that height correlates with success. This hypothesis is further underscored by a 2020 Chinese study that found that each centimeter in height above average correlated with a 10% to 13% increase in annual earnings.”


It is important to note that the example presented lacks a proper explanation of whether the belief was unconscious in regard to its correlation with success and height. Simply measuring the responses of CEOs in relation to the percentage of men who are 6'2" or taller does not provide an explanation of whether the CEOs' answers were influenced by unconscious bias or not. This is probably why Malcolm Gladwell used the word "could" to avoid definitive correlative proof. Using words like "could" leaves room for the possibility of inaccuracy.


In addition, a 2020 Chinese study found a direct relationship between height and annual earnings, which adds to the difficulty of explaining whether the bias was truly unconscious or not. It's possible that it was actually implied bias, rather than unconscious bias, which is the attempt at combining the two examples of so-called unconscious bias to demonstrate prejudice against people who are shorter.


So, which is it? Did the CEOs not know they were biased, or did they know but decided to keep the knowledge of height and salary increases to themselves, maintaining the implication without admitting culpability?


In the second example, Racial discrimination through overt prejudicial behavior was disguised as implied bias:


“In an example from 2018, two Black men walked into a Philadelphia Starbucks to attend a business meeting. The manager asked them to leave, and they declined, saying they were waiting for their associate. The manager called the police, who then arrested the men. In interviews after the arrest, the men said they believed the manager had targeted them because of their race. Starbucks responded by holding companywide training to ‘address implicit bias, promote conscious inclusion, and prevent discrimination’.”[2]


Clearly, the manager was exhibiting prejudicial behavior that could not have possibly been the result of implicit bias and certainly nothing about her actions was unconscious. Vocabulary.com describes prejudice as a negative attitude towards someone based on race or ethnicity rather than personal experience.[3] Cambridge defines prejudice as an unfair and unreasonable opinion or feeling, especially when formed without enough thought or knowledge.[4] Not having enough knowledge or not using much thought before behaving in a particularly racially biased fashion is not unconscious or implicit. Asking the two Black men to leave was not the result of some unconscious bias coming to the surface suddenly, or a reaction to something suggested indirectly through her mind since she expressed herself quite openly that day. Was her behavior influenced by evolutionary psychology whether we like it or not?


The question I would ask the owners of Starbucks is why the culture of the establishment represented by the management was completely at ease in calling the police on people simply because they were Black. She assumed they were loitering, or they just didn’t belong. How many people who identify as white sit for hours upon hours taking advantage of the free Internet service provided by Starbucks, some not even bothering to purchase a coffee or muffin? Finally, why didn’t they address head-on the White Supremacism that spawned her behavior rather than hiding behind the wall of implication which provided the option of ideas that “perhaps she was prejudiced but she didn’t know she was or knew it but didn’t expect it to come out or was caught completely unaware?”


The phrase implicit bias was coined in 1995 by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald in an article titled, “Implicit social cognition: Attitudes, self-esteem and stereotypes.” In it, they contended “that social behavior often operates in an implicit or unconscious fashion.”[5]


According to Drs. Banaji and Greenwald, social behavior operates unconsciously or implicitly. The use of the word "or" suggests that neither bias holds the same rationale as most people think, making the equivalency of the two biases questionable. However, the statement is implied rather than an open expression of the differences between the two. As psychologists, I believe they intentionally adjusted the terminology to "implicit" from the unconscious to offer some cognitive representation of cerebral coherence and plausibility. Even though they opted to retain the term "unconscious" loosely, in my opinion, they included it in their explanation to allow for conciliation in the arena of psychologists and sociologists who may still want to attribute some explanation of phenomena beyond what the mind openly agrees as the cause for the actualization of biased thoughts of race, color, or character.


Dr. Banaji, the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University, and considered a pioneer in the study of implicit bias spoke about her work on a podcast with interviewer, Kim Mills for the American Psychological Association. Her work centers around what she determines to be disparities between conscious expressions of values, attitudes, and beliefs on the one hand, and less conscious, implicit representations of mental content.[6] It is important to note here that acknowledging being less conscious is not the same as being completely unconscious which owes more to her work on implications formed by the mind rather than a complete escape from consciousness altogether as an explanation of behavior. Again, it would appear Dr. Banaji is distancing herself from the notion of unconscious and implicit equivalency.


In the opening segment of the interview, she vehemently declared, and rightly so, that implicit bias was not a euphemism for Racism. This was an important declaration since many still attribute implicit bias to Racism as though Racism is purely an implied interpersonal behavior of love and hate rather than a system designed to perpetuate behavior caused by whiteness as sovereign. The Starbucks example illustrated how Racism was given equivalency with implicit bias by virtue of their response to the racial discrimination vis-a-vie Racism in their establishment. She went on to explain:


“Prejudice to psychologists is an explicit, conscious aversion or dislike that one person may have towards groups of people. If I were to say to you, I do not think that women should be teaching at Harvard, that would be an example of something we would call a conscious prejudice. What we've studied and what the modern, the invention of computers that allowed us to do experiments that would get at other levels of our minds, what that work revealed was that a large number of people in our society have genuinely, honestly come to a point where they believe that they are not biased.


“And that I would argue is true. This is not something that they're making up. This is not something that they're lying about. They genuinely believe in the ideals of egalitarianism, equal treatment, fair treatment, and they disavow prejudice. They teach their children how to not be prejudiced and so on. And yet what our evidence showed is that those very same people, I would say, people like your listeners, people like myself, we found that we do have what we call implicit levels of bias. It is not at all the same thing as racism or sexism, but it indeed is evidence of an association in our heads that I would call the roots of prejudice.”[6]


Upon reflection, Dr. Banaji’s discussion leaves much to unpack. Validity is not gained simply by declaring a belief one way or another. There are many white people who believe in egalitarianism in the broader sense, but will never give up their perceived sovereignty over everything on the planet. It can be agreed that prejudice relative to Race as color and character is an overt, speculation of people based on the predetermined superior and inferior ideology of whiteness and the beliefs that spring from them. However, if the example of not liking women teaching at Harvard should be considered a conscious prejudice, why would there be a need for implicit bias classes at Starbucks for behavior that was obviously conscious prejudice? Arriving at a point or position in life where one believes they are not biased, no matter how genuinely or honestly they come to such conclusions does not negate the fact that the behavior is supposedly hardwired through evolutionary psychology as expressed earlier. There are just as many white people who honestly and genuinely believe in their superiority over Black people and harbor no unconscious or implicit bias since the bias is conscious, and they teach their children as well. Moreover, acknowledging that at least some level of bias is the root of prejudice, after defining prejudice and then stating the prejudice isn’t about Race or sex, and allowing at the same time for the belief that no biases exist is, in my view, pervasive double-speak, making the cake-and-eat-it-too attitudes of many who identify as white and Dr. Banaji suspect in the statement.


The discussion of implicit bias and the examples used throughout the interview were very carefully arranged to dismiss outright issues of Racial bias but included almost all conceivable LGBTQIA and sex or gender-based perceived implicit biases when discussing less benign and more damaging forms. In fact, the only time Black people were mentioned in the discussion at all was when Dr. Banaji was asked where biases come from, and how biases are formed and learned. Banaji stated:


“You're right to use the word learn, because we're not born knowing that African Americans are bad and white people or European Americans are good. We're not born into the world believing that men should be going out to work and women should be at home. So learning is what happens, but it would be remiss, I think, not to speak a little bit about what we mean here by learning. What we mean here by learning is something that happens extremely fast, quite early in life, and then progresses. And that comes not from just the social environment, but by the structure and the architecture of our minds. The way our brain got built over a period of evolutionary history.”[6]


I read the transcript, and then I listened to that portion of the podcast a few times. I tried to read through her inflection to come to some semblance of connotative understanding of her example using the binary of good and bad, from the statement, “We are not born knowing African Americans are bad.” She was evidently attempting to simultaneously qualify that the particular belief wasn’t born knowledge, but without providing validation for the value of the statement as wrong on its face. By using the term, knowing and not immediately disavowing the statement as false, she subsequently justified the notion that perhaps white people who thought that way probably discovered that Black people were bad on their own without any intervention from parents and their social environment.


She went on to state that since they weren’t born knowing already, learning was extremely fast and quite early in life, which is divergent from her very next statement of how our brains got over a period of evolutionary history which I would conclude is a slow process, and makes no sense at all. Which is it? Immediately after birth, progressing early in life, or the slow process of evolutionary history on our building brains? Nevertheless, she was offering cover for white people who might have learned from their parents and the social environment. Her statements were undoubtedly targeting an audience that she believed was at least predominately white and again presented as a cake and eat it, too attitude.


Of course, the statement is a given for those who know people are not bad for being born Black. However, what she presented in that statement nonetheless was an open reflection of learned White Supremacism, akin to “we believe it, but we weren’t born like that,” or “We learned it, we forgot it, and it isn’t social conditioning, but just something in our minds through evolution that many of us truly and honestly believe we forgot or are just unaware of, even though we admit we are at least a little biased.” The need to qualify quickly what she meant by learning was palpable, almost as though she immediately caught her voice trapped in a statement from her mouth she knew she put her foot into.


If prejudice to psychologists is an explicit and conscious aversion or dislike that one person may have towards groups of people, for example, white people against Black people, then how does one reconcile learning about supremacism and whiteness, then coming to a point where they believe they are not biased despite simultaneously owning being biased? Since when is the validity for any individual gained by merely believing oneself is not prejudiced or biased, especially when it is admitted that the behavior is learned? By her explanation, she admits that what the evidence showed was “that those very same people, I would say, people like your listeners, people like myself, we found that we do have what we call implicit levels of bias.” Here, implicit levels of bias attempt to sanitize prejudice by placing it in the background of conscious thought, and giving respite for average white people who harbor such prejudices as simply not something to which much thought is given.


If unconscious bias is a thing, it must mean the learning leaves the conscious state to live dormant in the unconscious until such time a behavioral action must be taken according to the beliefs from which the learning sprung. She was careful not to indict the “social environment,” instead placing the blame on the structure of our minds rather than the obvious generational animosity of white people toward Black people and when that animosity became an ideology and a system to perpetuate it. The statement of the way our brains were built, attributing it to evolutionary history was, in my view, tantamount to Eugenic pseudo-science and was gibberish unbecoming someone of her achievements in psychology. Implicit or unconscious bias, no matter which way it is used may not be a euphemism for Racism, but it is certainly a euphemism for White Supremacism since the ideology is what causes the behavior which in turn grinds the mechanisms of systemic, institutional Racism.


Stepping all over themselves equivocating over terms to hide the obvious, sanitizing euphemisms like implicit bias and using it to disguise supremacist thought on account of Race, Race as Color, Race as Character, and the value of humans on account of these, rather than facing the learned, indoctrinated, and conditioned belief in White Supremacism, I am struck by the ease at which implicit biases invariably enter into the discussion of Race as color and character and Racism almost as though implicit bias is joined at the hip while simultaneously hiding in plain, implied sight. The sad part is there is a paltry amount of scholarly discussion of the Black/white binary of implicit biases and prejudice, specifically on that basis. When one considers Starbucks’ reaction and response to the blatant Racial discrimination against young Black men waiting for their meeting partner to arrive as implicit bias and then fostering training on it rather than dealing with the pervasiveness of White Supremacism, one must conclude that implicit bias is being used interchangeably with Racially discriminatory behavior, known and explicit in its prejudice, and that implicit bias as a term is nothing more than another attempt at disinfecting White Supremacism and Racism by making it appear animosity occurs without any prior awareness. It’s time to cut through the bull and deal openly with the ideology that placed the United States and indeed the world where it is today.






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