Social Justice Usage
Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control. Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness. Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.
The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance. These associations develop over the course of a lifetime beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages. In addition to early life experiences, the media and news programming are often-cited origins of implicit associations.
New Discourses Commentary
Implicit bias (or unconscious bias) is an attribution of stereotypes of certain qualities onto specific social groups (read: identities) that takes place almost entirely beneath one’s awareness. Someone with an implicit bias against black people, for example, may consider themselves not-racist or even antiracist with respect to black people while still exhibiting attitudes (like anti-blackness) or holding racial stereotypes about black people—these biases existing beneath one’s conscious awareness. Even more insidiously, implicit bias can refer to having very generic (negative) associations with some identity factors that do not manifest even to the level of stereotypes but that may produce very subtle differences in intuitive or cognitive assessment of members of certain identity groups as compared with others.
To understand this last point, implicit bias (or implicit association) testing is considered to be the way in which implicit biases can be detected. The way this testing proceeds is to present a person with a number of words with some clearly identifiable valence (e.g., positive versus negative, science versus non-science, etc.) and some indicator of identity, such as pronouns, images of people, or stereotypically ethnic names. The tests carefully track how quickly people can complete certain association tasks when the positive-valence terms are associated with one identity and negative with the other versus when they are switched. The underlying assumption is that if it takes longer to associate positive-valence ideas with certain identities than others, then it must be due to some learned, but implicit, bias. For instance, if it takes someone longer to associate science words with women than it does with men, the test would indicate an implicit bias against women in science. Much of this research has been called deeply into question and is held with rather profound suspicion, both about what it actually shows and whether it has any particular application in practice . (The evidence against its application in practice may outweigh the evidence for its application, for example.)
Implicit bias is considered of utmost importance to the Theory of Critical Social Justice. There (and somewhat beyond) they are explained as being rooted in experiences and learned associations, often by means of socialization into identity-based systems of power and the “ideologies” that support and naturalize them (see also, false consciousness). The Theory of Critical Social Justice and much of the activism that proceeds from it considers implicit biases to be tantamount to hard evidence of the kinds of false consciousness around which its entire Theory of systemic injustice turns. Consistent with its ultimately critical mission (which has always believed that oppression largely results from unjust systems of power that fail to be properly identified and criticized – see also, critical theory), much of what it advocates in practice boils down to looking for the root causes of implicit biases and engaging with them to eradicate them (see also, critical consciousness, consciousness raising, wokeness, internalized dominance, and internalized oppression). Antiracism, which is not merely being against racism, is explicitly such a project.
The Theory of Critical Social Justice is abundantly clear in its interpretation of the (for it, sole) source of implicit biases. Whatever confounding factors might genuinely be in play, Theory understands implicit bias to be wholly the result of socialization about the relative worth (usually measured by equitable access) a person has in society as determined by the many intersecting socially constructed identity categories she belongs to (see also, positionality). That is, Theory posits that there is no genuinely meaningful difference between any human beings whatsoever (see also, blank slatism), that all such categories are ultimately fictions (see also, social constructivism), and that there can be (almost) no consequential effects of holding different cultural values (see also, cultural relativism), and thus any differences must be wholly the result of injustices that exist in the power dynamics between social identity groups. Simply, Theory says implicit biases exist because people have learned that members of different identity groups have different values because this is reflected in the various unjust and intersecting power dynamics that allegedly structure society. (NB: Theory does believe that there are consequential negative effects of holding dominant cultural values because these lead to biases that cause harm, exclusion, marginalization, oppression, and trauma – see also, standpoint epistemology, epistemic injustice, epistemic oppression, and epistemic violence.)
Rather like the way it views microaggressions (tiny slights that indicate to members of minoritized groups that they’re not members of dominant groups), the Theory of Critical Social Justice would hold that much that passes as systemic injustice is the result of the aggregated effects of many such minuscule implicit biases. For example, one could imagine that if it takes people (especially white people) some fraction of a second longer to associate black people with positive terms or women with science, then in some (perhaps very small) proportion of cases, an unjust snap decision will be made about these things or some other seemingly minor negative consequence will manifest. In aggregate, over the billions of such decisions made over some period of time in society, this will create a consequential negative effect for members of those minoritized groups.
This vaguely defined allegedly causal force is then taken to be a significant part of what is meant by terms like “systemic racism,” which can be read from society not necessarily in any particular interaction or event but in the aggregate by interpreting any disparate (inequitable) outcomes to be proof of the injustice inherent in the system. It is worth pausing to reflect on what system is being referenced here, however; it is the system of people’s unconscious thoughts, which it is believed they have been socialized into by anything in society that might possibly lead them to have those incorrect unconscious thoughts. This, among other aspects (institutional, cultural, knowledge, language/discourses, etc.), is the system that Critical Social Justice insists we must deconstruct, disrupt, dismantle, subvert, and ultimately overthrow in a complete social revolution that tolerates no injustice whatsoever—as it defines justice.
Anti-blackness; Antiracism; Bias; Blank slatism; Consciousness raising; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical theory; Cultural relativism; Deconstruction; Discourse; Dismantle; Disrupt; Dominance; Engage; Epistemic injustice; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; Equity; Exclusion; False consciousness; Harm; Identity; Ideology; Injustice; Internalized dominance; Internalized oppression; Intersectionality; Justice; Knowledge(s); Marginalization; Microaggression; Minortize; Oppression; Positionality; Racism (systemic); Revolution; Science; Social construction; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Socialization; Standpoint epistemology; Structural; Subversion; System, the; Systemic power; Theory; Tolerance; Trauma; White; Woke/Wokeness; Woman
 Sources indicating the dubious nature of the Implicit Association Test, upon which implicit bias is allegedly empirically grounded, are copious now (here are several examples summarizing the literature). Some of this literature indicates that even the creators of the IAT have backed off from saying it shows much of anything. Further, there is apparently fairly robust evidence that (1) the test results aren’t stable and change from one test to another, (2) are easily gamed to get the score you want once you know how, (3) have no observable correlation with behavior or predict behaviors in reverse, (4) do not improve or change with implicit bias training that is supposed to make you more aware of them, although this often backfires and increases certain forms of racial resentment in office environments (not white on black resentment, though), and (5) may not be measuring anything remotely close to what they claim to be measuring, as the results can often be reversed simply by changing some initial conditions of the people taking the tests. Further, there are confounding variables all over the place, including stuff about people finding the tests confusing and having other systematic error-introducing issues with the test.
Lastly a feminist paper in The Lancet from 2019 argues that the IAT isn’t just unreliable but is also, in fact, sexist, because it focuses on something allegedly observable and objective when it should be focusing on structural issues that are embedded in the social hierarchy (i.e., more Theory, more storytelling, etc.). Their point was that even if the IAT is legit, which they don’t believe it is any longer, it would be problematic because it doesn’t take the right kind of approach that these social theories really advocate, which would be completely divorced from any data at all. It is not clear whether the feminist authors decided to problematize the IAT just because that’s all they do to everything or because it stopped being useful to them because it was being debunked scientifically, so they wanted to put even more distance between them and it.
Revision date: 6/13/20