Having “The Talk” with Your Students about Implicit Racism

Toni Schmader holds the Canada research chair in social psychology at the University of British Columbia. She received her PhD in social psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was previously a faculty member at the University of Arizona. She is the director of UBC’s Social Identity Laboratory and of a Canada-wide research consortium known as Engendering Success in STEM, aimed at evidence-based research to improve the representation of women in science and technology. Her research broadly examines how societal stereotypes and subtle biases constrain people’s thoughts, behavior, and performance.

Photo Credit: Paul Joseph/UBC Brand & Marketing.

The Broadway hit musical Avenue Q features an upbeat ditty describing how “Everyone’s a little bit racist.”

The lyrics, sung by furry puppets, use humor, melody, and shared experience to convey an important lesson about implicit racism: as long as skin color continues to define people’s different experiences in North America and around the world, race will continue to be a way that we categorize and perceive others and ourselves. The song goes on to profile everyday experiences of implicit racism, but in May 2020, the death of George Floyd, an African American man, beneath the knee of a White police officer reminded us that racism, whether implicit or explicit, continues to have tragic consequences.

Across a range of academic disciplines, content and discussion in the classroom can touch on if not delve deeply into issues of racial bias and injustice. As an instructor in psychology, I have the privilege and obligation to teach my students about implicit bias and structural disadvantage in a way that is grounded in science and able to clarify common misconceptions. Although classroom conversations about racism can be difficult to have, they are critically important. Here are a few tips and strategies to guide your decisions not just of what to teach, but of how to approach this sensitive topic.

Know Your Audiences

Challenge: In discussions of intergroup bias, members of the disadvantaged group often come into conversations with concerns about feeling victimized or ignored. Members of the advantaged group have their own concerns about being unfairly labeled as a bigot (Bergsieker, Shelton, & Richeson, 2010; Shelton, Richeson, & Vorauer, 2006). These feelings of anxiety can get in the way of true understanding. As an instructor, you want to make sure you are not tailoring information only to one group’s needs while ignoring the concerns of the rest of the class.

Suggestion: Ask students to complete a series of journal entries about: a) their expectations about the topic beforehand, b) their experiences with discussing the topic in class, and c) their general reactions afterward. Give students credit for completing the assignment without requiring them to share the content of their journal. Providing a space for them to reflect on their experiences can help students process their content more deeply in a safe but meaningful way. However, you might invite students to anonymously share their entries with you, to give you a better sense of how the material is being received. Just be careful not to require this to avoid placing an emotional burden on those for whom the topic feels deeply personal.

Meet Students Where They Are

Challenge:  Your students will bring with them a range of personal histories and will likely themselves come from a variety of backgrounds. Some will be socially and self-aware and already have some familiarity with the concepts of implicit and systemic racism, but for others this will be their first introduction. It is important to acknowledge this diversity explicitly and to encourage everyone in the class to grant each other a bit of grace along the journey to understanding these biases and how to counteract them.

Suggestion:  Begin the class with an exercise that asks everyone to reflect on their most cherished values and why they are important to them. Spend a few minutes highlighting values that are broadly shared by students in the class. Reflecting on personal values can make people more open to potentially threatening content and sharing values can foster a sense of community (Badea & Sherman, 2019). 

Amplify Underrepresented Experiences and Research  

Challenge:  Although many disciplines within the academy have made great strides in increasing the diversity of the teachers and researchers in the field, it remains the case that many classes feature White instructors teaching the research published by White scholars. This is often the case in psychology as well (Roberts et al., 2020). You have the opportunity to use your platform to amplify the research and experiences of a broader diversity of people.

Suggestion: Seek out and represent research published by minority scholars. This is a good principle for any topic, but one can often find excellent videos among TED talk speakers (such as Phillip Atiba Goff) and MacArthur Fellowship winners (such as Jennifer Eberhardt) of minority scholars and intellectuals explaining research on implicit and systemic bias and its importance to society. In psychology, Erica Wojcik of Skidmore College has also created a wiki resource of articles from minority scholars on a range of topics in the field. You can browse the articles (and nominate additional articles) here.

Put Bias in Perspective

Challenge:  The topics of implicit and systemic racial bias are ones that can be addressed from a multitude of perspectives. Providing a more interdisciplinary approach to the topic can enrich students’ understanding and be a useful way to integrate different approaches and research methodologies. Even within the field of psychology, we can introduce and explore these topics from several distinct subfields.

Suggestion:  Regardless of your disciplinary background, acknowledge that biases manifest at three interrelated levels: a) institutional structures can perpetuate group disparities even in the absence of any personal hostility between groups, b) interpersonal encounters can be affected by implicit biases that people are not always aware they hold, and c) those individual biases can be understood in terms of fundamental aspects of how we perceive each other and ourselves. For example, here are a few of the different perspectives that psychological scientists in various subfields take on the topic. From a developmental perspective, when are these biases formed and how changeable are they (Baron & Banaji, 2006)? From a perceptual perspective, are people at times less able to perceive people of other races as fully human, contributing to biased perceptions (Harris, 2017)? From a sociocultural perspective, do implicit biases reflect systemic disparities in people’s environments more than they reflect hidden prejudices in an individual’s mind (Payne, Vuletich, & Lundberg, 2017)? From a cognitive neuroscience perspective, what is the process by which implicit racial biases are activated and downregulated in the mind (Cunningham et al., 2004)?  Have students try the interactive figure in Study Unit 15.17 of Chapter 15 of Interactive Psychology. Finally, from a stress, health, and clinical perspective, how might the repeated experience of implicit bias relate to racial disparities in physical health and psychological well-being (Major, Dovidio, & Link, 2018)?

Show Rather Than Tell

Challenge:  The biggest challenge in communicating the concept of implicit racism to anyone unfamiliar with both the concept and the personal experience can be simply convincing them of the phenomenon’s existence. Although research has begun to suggest that people often have some awareness of the implicit stereotypes and prejudices they might hold (Hahn et al., 2014), this isn’t always the case. Fortunately, there are several compelling tools that can help people to feel the biased associations they might have learned during their two or more decades around the sun.

Suggestion:  Social psychologists have created useful tools to reveal people’s implicit associations. Study Unit 15.17 in Chapter 15 of Interactive Psychology features an interactive that allows students to discover the degree to which they might have a bias to see Black (vs. White) male faces as angry (Hugenberg & Bodenhausen, 2003). After having students experience taking an implicit association test (IAT) to reveal their attitudes toward political parties in Study Unit 15.17 of Chapter 15, you can also invite them to take a racial bias IAT at Project Implicit. Alternatively, the IAT can be done as a crowd demonstration (i.e., by asking the audience to quickly slap their right or left leg to categorize stimuli that you present on a screen in keeping with a typical IAT). In field research, this has been shown to increase students’ understanding of this important concept (Adams et al., 2014).

Create a Space for Respectful Dialogue

Challenge: Finally, for some students, these conversations might be especially difficult or could bring up personal experiences that are deeply upsetting. There are also no guarantees that other students will not make comments or ask questions that some will find offensive. Your role is to acknowledge the sensitivity of the topic for everyone before class begins, and to create within the classroom a safe, respectful, and brave space where people can learn both from you and from each other.

Suggestion: Warn students in advance that your goal is to create a respectful and brave space for discussing theory and research and their social implications. This means setting norms where students feel willing to share and discuss ideas that might feel uncomfortable with the support of others. Encourage students to ask questions and engage in active listening if others are sharing their opinions or experiences. If a student makes a comment or expresses an opinion to which others might take offense, be clear and direct in explaining why you or others disagree with that view or, if applicable, why research would suggest otherwise. Finally, learn about what resources exist on your campus (e.g. trained counselors or support groups) to have ready to share with any student who may need more help processing these experiences.

Works Cited

Adams, V. H., III, Devos, T., Rivera, L. M., Smith, H., & Vega, L. A. (2014). Teaching about implicit prejudices and stereotypes: A pedagogical demonstration. Teaching of Psychology41(3), 204–212. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.1177/0098628314537969

Badea, C., & Sherman, D. K. (2019). Self-affirmation and prejudice reduction: When and why? Current Directions in Psychological Science28(1), 40–46. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.1177/0963721418807705

Baron, A. S. & Banaji, M. R. (2006). The development of implicit attitudes: Evidence of race evaluations from ages 6 and 10 to adulthood. Psychological Science17(1), 53–58. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01664.x

Bergsieker, H. B., Shelton, J. N., & Richeson, J. A. (2010). To be liked versus respected: Divergent goals in interracial interactions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology99(2), 248–264. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.1037/a0018474

Cunningham, W. A., Johnson, M. K., Raye, C. L., Gatenby, J. C., Gore, J. C., & Banaji, M. R. (2004). Separable neural components in the processing of Black and White faces. Psychological Science15(12), 806–813. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.1111/j.0956-7976.2004.00760.x

Hahn, A., Judd, C. M., Hirsh, H. K., & Blair, I. V. (2014). Awareness of implicit attitudes. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General143(3), 1369–1392. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.1037/a0035028

Harris, L. T. (2017). Invisible mind: Flexible social cognition and dehumanization. MIT Press.

Hugenberg, K. & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2003). Facing prejudice: Implicit prejudice and the perception of facial threat. Psychological Science14(6), 640–643. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.1046/j.0956-7976.2003.psci_1478.x

Major, B., Dovidio, J. F., & Link, B. G., (Eds.). (2018). The Oxford handbook of stigma, discrimination, and health (pp. 3–28). Oxford University Press.

Payne, B. K., Vuletich, H. A., & Lundberg, K. B. (2017). The bias of crowds: How implicit bias bridges personal and systemic prejudice. Psychological Inquiry28(4), 233–248. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.1080/1047840X.2017.1335568

Roberts, S. O., Bareket-Shavit, C., Dollins, F. A., Goldie, P. D., & Mortenson, E. (2020). Racial inequality in psychological research: Trends of the past and recommendations for the future. Perspectives on Psychological Sciencehttps://doi.org/10.1177/1745691620927709

Shelton, J. N., Richeson, J. A., & Vorauer, J. D. (2006). Threatened identities and interethnic interactions. European Review of Social Psychology17, 321–358. https://doi-org.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/10.1080/10463280601095240