Since the video showing the arrest of two Black men in a Philadelphia Starbucks hit social media, and then the news; for being deemed suspicious because they were waiting for a friend, the term ‘implicit bias’ has been buzzing around. But what does it actually mean?
I initially discovered the video, much like many people, via the Twitter account of Melissa DePino who recorded and tweeted the incident as it happened. Seeing the police handcuff and arrest Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson was disturbing, particularly given the eyewitness accounts that they’d done nothing wrong.
Any number of White people, including myself, have sat in a Starbucks without ordering a coffee until a friend arrives or used the restroom without purchasing anything but have never encountered this kind of treatment; which these guys handled with the most extraordinary amount of poise. And this is the basis that implicit bias thrives on; the trained mindset that views Blackness with suspicion in the most innocuous situations — that’s why we end up with the phenomena of White people calling the police on People of Colour for merely living their lives.
Implicit bias is an unconscious set of stereotypically harmful attitudes and actions that we hold against other groups of people. It’s so deceptive and duplicitous many of us cannot see the subtleties of racism, sexism, ableism or homophobia in our actions. For example, even though I could see and hear something unacceptable was happening to these two Black men in Starbucks; I briefly defaulted to making an excuse for it — I tried to rationalize they must have done something wrong. I don’t hold onto these misperceptions for long; I’ve worked on becoming comfortable with examining them when they occur, but implicit bias is something we all need to be aware of and challenge in everyone around us, including ourselves.
Listen to what Warriors Kamau Bell has to say in this video and let it sink in.
When it comes to race-based implicit bias, it’s hidden in the stereotypes we buy into. If we find ourselves speaking about/behaving towards Black people (or any group) in terms of a monolith, chances are it’s fed by implicit bias and yes, it’s racist.
The store manager who called the police on Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson is no longer employed there, and Kevin Johnson (Starbucks, CEO) is implementing unconscious racial bias training for staff — if no other steps are undertaken, this is a bare minimum response. The idea that we subject people to embarrassing, devaluing, hurtful, and sometimes dangerous experiences because of implicit bias should be enough to mobilize us to tackle it urgently in a bold, uncompromising way.
Ingrained patterns of thought can be uncomfortable to examine, but that’s nothing compared to being on the receiving end of harmful racial stereotypes. While implicit bias is unintentional, it bears broader consequences; if we don’t do anything about the quiet, internal survival of racism within us, we can’t dismantle the systemic reality of racism around us.
Read about Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt, a behavioural psychologist who has dedicated her career to illuminating the implicit prejudice that guides people’s behaviour and decision-making processes.
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