Read below for my conversation with Dr. Jennifer L. Eberhardt, author of the new book Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do
Katie Couric: You grew up in an all-black neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, before your family moved to the suburb of Beachwood. Tell us about your experience after arriving there.
Jennifer Eberhardt: Well, I was worried about moving there because the vast majority of people who lived there were white and I’m black. I was 12 years old and didn’t know whether I would fit in. I didn’t know whether I would be accepted. It turned out that everyone was welcoming and friendly, yet I still had problems making friends. That was because I could not tell their faces apart. They all looked alike to me.
Before that move, everyone I had any meaningful relationship with was black. My brain was conditioned—it was tuned—to people I typically saw around me. So, when I moved to Beachwood, it took some time for my brain to catch up.
I did not understand it back then, but the fact that we are worse at recognizing faces of races other than our own is a well-known phenomenon, something scientists have dubbed “the other race effect.” Researchers have found that even by 3 months of age, babies are already showing a preference for faces of their own race.
Katie: That’s an incredible story, and it really underscores how early our biases are formed. What part does acknowledging these biases play in the effort to overcome them?
Jennifer: When we don’t acknowledge our biases, not only do we increase the probability that they will infect our perceptions, decisions and actions, we also give them room to grow stronger—making them harder to manage.
Katie: You make the point that you don’t have to be a “white-robed racist” or a “bad person” to be biased. Why is that such an important distinction for people to understand?
Jennifer: Typically, when people think of bias, they think of burning crosses and people filled with hate. But bias is something we are all vulnerable to. Our brains are wired to categorize and form stereotypes, and I have spent my career understanding the science behind it. Once we accept that bias is not a reflection of our moral character, we are better equipped to have productive conversations about its operation and impact. And that’s how we can change.
Katie: Do you think it’s ever possible to eliminate bias altogether?
Jennifer: Because bias is both a function of our brain wiring and the disparities we witness in the world, it is difficult for any one individual to extinguish. Yet, bias is something we can all manage and, in the process, come to better understand ourselves and the world.
Katie: How do some situations make us more vulnerable to bias than others? And how do we become more powerful the more we understand this fact?
Jennifer: Bias is not something that a person either has or not. Bias can be induced by the situations we find ourselves in. Bias is most likely to be triggered in situations where we are forced to make split-second decisions. It is more likely to influence our decision-making and actions when we are feeling threatened or cognitively depleted. It can take hold when we don’t monitor our behavior over time. In fact, we have many “mitigation tools” at our disposal to curb bias. And the more we understand the conditional nature of bias, the better we can employ those tools and guard against it.
Katie: How could an attempt at “colorblindness” actually lead to more racial inequality?
Jennifer: Many people feel that if they simply practice being colorblind, they will be less vulnerable to bias. Yet, researchers have found that when we aim not to see color, we also tend not to see discrimination. Thus, we end up ignoring inequality rather than combating it.
Katie: A lot of bias training is well-intentioned but not very effective. What would you suggest as positive and productive steps to work against the negative effects of our biases?
Jennifer: Unfortunately, bias-training typically is not rigorously evaluated. And these types of trainings can vary widely in their content, format and duration. The trainings that work best are those that not only teach people what bias is, but also give people tools for actively managing it—tools such as slowing down, monitoring our own behavior, using objective standards to evaluate the behavior of others. In organizations, bias-training tends to be more useful when it is combined with changes to policies, practices and culture. In fact, the same techniques individuals can use to protect themselves from bias, organizations (such as schools, police departments or corporations) can use to protect everyone in the system at once. Thus, organizations can be powerful actors in keeping bias at bay.