Biases Lurking Under the Surface

Aaron Marshall
Dr. Quinn Capers

In the wake of an ugly incident at a Philadelphia Starbucks, the company shut down half of its locations nationwide in late May to allow for employees to undergo racial sensitivity training. That high-profile decision has focused attention on “implicit bias,” an idea that is gaining increasing acceptance in central Ohio and beyond.

Answering the bell locally is Ohio State University's Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, an authority on unconscious discrimination. The organization conducts several training sessions a week touching thousands of people annually in community, nonprofit and corporate settings across Ohio.

Academic institutions first adopted implicit bias training, but now more corporations are tackling the issue. “I would say the interest of the corporate community in particular has grown in the last couple of years,” says Kelly Capatosto, the leader of Kirwan's Race and Cognition team. “I think everyone is now looking to understand the implications of implicit bias in workplace dynamics.”

So what exactly is implicit bias and how can it be overcome? Capatosto says it is best understood by what it isn't: the bias of someone who is consciously prejudiced.

“It's really all about the unintentional messages, subtle norms and cues we've all learned and how we internalize it,” Capatosto says. “It's underneath our conscious control and informs our behavior.”

Implicit bias comes in many forms with race, gender, age, disability, religion and body type being the most commonly seen, Capatosto says. “It's really an indictment of the inequality that exists in our society,” she says.

The Kirwan Institute's training sessions are geared toward tackling a specific problem or inspiring a more general conscious-raising talk on the issue. “Usually, we are coming into a situation where there is a very specific trend that needs addressed, but we also do work with people who just want to better understand implicit bias and develop a common language around it,” Capatosto says.

Capatosto says if the May training session for Starbucks employees is a one-time event, then it will likely fail in helping baristas overcome biases. “We know a two-hour training isn't going to be enough to have a lasting impact,” she says. “The end goal should be making people aware of what biases they have and adopting proactive policies and practices that help to impact those biases.”

One place where that's happened is the OSU College of Medicine, which brought in Kirwan staff to test the admissions committee for implicit bias relating to underrepresented minorities in 2012. The results showed a majority of members with a preference for whites over minorities, says Dr. Quinn Capers, the school's associate dean for admissions. “It was really a big shock to our committee members and initially there was some resistance to the results,” he says.

Ohio State retooled its admissions process by adding a more holistic application review while committee members worked to overcome subtle cues of exclusion—making more eye contact, spending more time with applicants and searching for commonalities in conversation. “I tell people in a wrestling match between your conscious and unconscious mind, your conscious mind will win every time,” Capers says.

The results have been startling: In five years, Ohio State's admission rate of minority students doubled to 26 percent. However, Capers says that's not because they are actually admitting more minority students. “It seems that minority applicants seem to feel a vibe of inclusion when they are interacting with our committee members now,” he says. “When we looked at the numbers, it wasn't that we admitted more minority students, it was more of them deciding to choose Ohio State.”

A structured approach to fighting implicit bias training has also taken hold in recent years at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio (MTSO), an institution serving those headed into the clergy or into leadership positions with religious-based institutions.

Katherine Dickson, MTSO's director of vocational discernment and community engagement, says all students take a mandatory class in implicit bias and workshops offered online for employees. Each year, the school also holds a communitywide conversation touching on the topic. Dickson says the work to fight implicit bias doesn't end when students graduate. “For us, it's really important that our students understand that just because they have a degree in hand, they aren't exempt from continuing to be educated in implicit bias and work to be aware of their own biases as they take on leadership roles in the community,” she says.

The scope of implicit bias training widens at the theological school to include unconscious discrimination against wearers of religious-based clothing and non-Christian people of faith, Dickson says. “The measuring of the impact is really difficult, but we feel it's important for us to talk and unpack areas of Christian privilege.”

Meanwhile, in other venues, discussion designed to raise awareness of implicit bias is rising. For example, area school districts are looking to include discussions surrounding implicit bias as part of their diversity and inclusion seminars for staff members, says Megan Greulich, a staff attorney with the Ohio School Boards Association.

“The goal is to raise awareness to what implicit bias is and how it can guide our actions unknowingly,” Greulich says. “It's about providing that foundation of knowledge and information and safe place for discussion.”

Also taking strides to raise the implicit bias issue is the Columbus Bar Association, which has held Continuing Legal Education (CLE) programs for attorneys on the topic over the last several years. It is also conducting a series of public forums throughout 2018.

While lawyers have been undergoing anti-discrimination training for decades, attorney Judith McInturff—director of CLE programming for the Columbus Bar Association—says she's felt an undercurrent of gender bias in the paternalistic comments and touching she has endured during her career. “These are things that we live with that take away our dignity and humanity one drip at a time,” she says.

McInturff senses the legal community “wants to do better” from the high levels of interest the topic generates. “People move with glacial speed, but we are moving in the right direction.”

Aaron Marshall is a freelance writer.