How do you deal with implicit bias when it could affect you?
September 15, 2018 11:35 AM   Subscribe

It turns out that implicit bias makes it harder to do many things when you're not a white male, including getting interviews for jobs, riding the bus, and even getting restaurant recommendations from your hotel. How do you actually deal with this?

I'm an Asian American male, and while I feel like I at least know where to start when it comes to dealing with overtly racist comments, I have no idea how to navigate implicit bias. Most of the discussion on implicit bias seems to focus on how to reduce it. But I would like advice on what to do when I might be the target of it. I say "might" because a large part of the problem seems to be that you can actually never know for sure if what you're experiencing is the result of implicit bias.

This is maybe a minor example, but when I was in high school, I wanted to do research and got advice from friends that all you had to do was e-mail a few professors to get started working on projects with them. So I tried that, mostly got no responses, was disappointed, but figured that maybe this was just because I was a random high school student. I tried again in college, e-mailing professors at my school, and still got no responses. It got to the point where I would try to schedule meetings with professors I was taking classes from, but even they wouldn't respond to my e-mails. For a long time I assumed that there was something like fundamentally wrong with me that made it so hard to get responses.

Well, a few years later this study turns up, which says very clearly college professors are significantly less likely to respond to your e-mails if you're not a white male, and in fact Asians fare the worst. But even with this knowledge, I'm not sure what I could do. Any single non-response could be for many reasons that have nothing to do with race or implicit bias. And for this specific issue, maybe I could change my name. But that wouldn't really make me feel any better, and it wouldn't help in cases where the implicit bias is a result of the way I look rather than the way my name sounds.

The extra annoying bit is that as far as I can tell, these studies mostly focus on easy to measure examples of implicit bias. But it seems reasonable that implicit bias could affect all sorts of things, including how nice people are to you or how likely they are to want to be your friend or how seriously they take your opinions and so on. So how can you tell if what you're experiencing is the result of implicit bias, and how do you actually deal with it when it could be, especially since you can never know for sure?
posted by chernoffhoeffding to Human Relations (12 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The only way I have found to deal with this is to work on friendships with other folks who experience the same kinds of discrimination as you do, and other people who experience discrimination in different ways. Having people to gripe to, bounce situations off to ask if they seem weird, and to support each other makes a big difference.
posted by ITheCosmos at 11:41 AM on September 15, 2018 [6 favorites]

Honestly, for me? (Butch lesbian South Asian woman here) Selective blinders. Maybe this only works for me because I dont want to believe that other people treat me differently because of my race or gender (and it helps that I'm about as observant as a brick anyway). Also because I feel like I'm not that vulnerable to implicit bias and stuff like this hasn't happened to me a whole lot - but maybe this is due to those blinders I mentioned. (Thinking back, I definitely got bullied in middle school because of my race and am definitely aware of racial bias when it happens to someone else...just not to me for some reason. Confidence?)

When I first cut my hair and started wearing boy clothes, people started staring at me. Like, a lot. I'd have everyone from babies (who still can't seem to figure me out) to old people to classmates doing double takes and choosing a seat not next to the weirdo. It really got to me badly, to the point where I was waiting for the stares and stink-eyes from everyone I met. Who is judging me? Who is going to be hostile? Who is going to respect me?

Over time, as I've gotten more confident in my expression and more self-actualized in general, if profs dont return my email, my first assumption is that they're just bad at e-mail and ping them again. I think this definitely requires a group like ITheCosmos suggested to reality check yourself if oh shit, this is racism or something feels weird but you can't tell what. Trust your gut, but dont be on the hunt for it.

Of course, this does not apply for everyone, so please take with a grain of salt. TL;DR be a little naive, but reality check when you have to.
posted by scruffy-looking nerfherder at 11:50 AM on September 15, 2018 [4 favorites]

Nothing, dude. There's nothing you can do and there is no way you can know for sure why other people treat you like they do. Fight harder, work harder, and push harder than you think you should have to to get what you want. Put in 110% when other people only put in 50% and try not to listen to them because they don't know what it's like. Know what is true for you and live by your own experience. And don't let the bastards grind you down.
posted by windykites at 12:03 PM on September 15, 2018 [17 favorites]

Actively search out organizations for work, education, and socializing where you feel you are already represented. It’s ok to the the first and/or only Asian American man or person in an organization, but you don’t have to be.

Support organizations that work to fight implicit and explicit bias. Donate your money, time, or expertise to organizations that can use them effectively.

As a white woman I wish I could say, “tell me when you see me doing that.” But you and I both know many of the problems of implicit bias. I can’t always tell I’m doing the thing, plausible deniability is powerful, white fragility is a real thing, and you can’t tell who will respond well and who...won’t. The advice to educate people is shortsighted.

As a woman, I read a lot about the issues of emotional labor and I push back on subtle and not so subtle requests for me to do inordinate shares of that. I look for places where I’m likely to find allies. I try not to share much that could be used to hurt me later.

Work through the writings of Brene Brown. She does a lot of work on belonging, and approaches it through the lens of Not Belonging. Implicit bias creates a slow burn of constant subtle reminders that people think you don’t belong.

Please, don’t hide your light under a bushel. The world needs you and while it’s not your job to fix this, when we all continue to show up, we help chip little flecks off the problem. It’s a mountain and moving a grain of sand at a time doesn’t feel helpful. At the same time, rest when you need to. Find the people you can confide in and commiserate with.
posted by bilabial at 1:15 PM on September 15, 2018 [7 favorites]

As a queer Asian nonbinary women, I've received enough implicit bias from straight Asian guys to be on the defense, so I generally think it can be a lose lose situation. I had to suck in my teeth a little bit when I read your question, and then had to remind myself that white supremacy, capitalism, and the patriarchy pits all of us against eachother for competition when we could be in solidarity instead.

I generally stay conscious and pay attention to when treatment is paid differently to me and follow my gut, and see how it shifts for anyone next to me. I also make sure to work closely with affinity and social groups that share similar values and commitments as I do. I also think about my own privileges and what I could do to lift up others, it's a lot easier to find your people that way. I also believe in the Four Agreements within reason, but am also okay with shouting at a racist or two when the time calls for it. Intersectional feminist organizing is my antidote to a lot of this. Vocal allies make me happy and feel a lot safer, so consider being one.
posted by yueliang at 1:22 PM on September 15, 2018 [17 favorites]

Put in 110% when other people only put in 50% and try not to listen to them because they don't know what it's like.

Something that helps is to keep in mind that this is going to make a lot of people think you're a boring killjoy or worse. Knowing that means you can push back against it and manage your expectations of how people are going to perceive you.

The other part of this is to play as hard as you work. People often have trouble seeing us as whole people so you're going to have to be deliberate about it.

The other helpful thing is to get some woke non-minorities in your corner. Not people who wear their allyhood on their sleeves (in fact, try to avoid these people at all costs), but those who know bullshit when they see and hear it. I owe a lot of my career to middle-aged white men (and on occasion, women) who see my ability and are deliberate about making room for me at tables where I might not look like I belong.
posted by blerghamot at 1:25 PM on September 15, 2018 [5 favorites]

Observe everyday microaggressions and slights with an anthropological stance and try not to let them get you down. Once I understood why people were saying some weird things about me (because I am a woman in a male-dominated field), it became kind of fun to identify it. (They don't actually mean that they're surprised to see me doing my job because I'm so young, they actually mean I'm so female. But they don't even really realize it. They are experiencing cognitive dissonance at seeing a female physics professor, and their brain is offering up this "so young" explanation, despite the fact that I'm in my forties and have gray streaks in my hair, because it'd be deeply antisocial to say "Wow, a lady physicist! I've never seen one of those before!" Brains are funny.)

The much more important thing is to filter incoming feedback. You'll get more criticism and less praise because of who you are, and it sucks, but you can't do anything about it, other than being mindful of it and making an effort not to internalize biased judgment. Seek out mentors and peers who appreciate you without being fawning, and offer useful and constructive feedback.
posted by BrashTech at 2:27 PM on September 15, 2018 [10 favorites]

Fat butch white woman here. My basic method of dealing with implicit microagression is to maintain an attitude of "Fuck that shit, and fuck them if they don't like me." There are people out there who are going to think you're fucking amazing. Go find those people. Dismiss the rest from your mind. You do you.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 6:25 PM on September 15, 2018

Asian-American man (Korean-American, cisgender, mostly straight) and also based in NYC (it seems you're also, based on your profile).

Oh man. Thanks for asking this question.

Personally, I feel like this is a difficult topic to discuss. Asian-Americanness is really complex and a really heterogeneous experience depending on where in the US you are, which country in Asia we're talking about, which generation of immigrant you are, what your relationship to Asia is, etc. In addition, I think implicit biases are not easily distributed according to gender or race, but a combination -- that the implicit bias against asian-american women is very different than the bias against asian-american men, or south-asian-american men, etc, etc. I want to be in solidarity with everyone and acknowledge my biases/blindspots -- while also expressing the difficulty in feeling the implicit biases imposed onto me, and it's not always easy.

The implicit biases I'm responding to is that, as an asian-american man, my competance is rarely questioned, but my personality, interests, and profession are quickly assumed or pigeonholed. (You probably know the drill - probably "smart", math/science-oriented, quiet/shy, not really a leader, pretty uninteresting, desexualized, culturally conservative, etc)

One method I've found to counter this, especially when meeting new people who do not know me and carry these biases with them, is by amplifying or initially presenting parts of my interests that don't align with that image. For example: trying to present my dress and hair carefully to be neither professional nor casual, but slightly formal and slightly weird/design-y at the same time. Or: introducing myself in a way that puts forth my humanities/creative practices first.

Otherwise, if I accidentally mention my technical side first, I've had times when I feel like people check-out and their eyes will immediately glaze over, and it feels like 'their understanding of who I am' has slid into the relatively homogeneous "slot" of identities allocated for asian-american men that they have, and I have to then climb out of this deep slot made out of assumptions -- which is either tiring or impossible. If white folks often have a hundred 'identity slots', but it feels like for asian-american men, there is one or two "slots". Much of my process involves scanning the white folks I meet and quickly deciding whether they have one slot, or five slots, or don't use slots in dealing with asian-american men. It's tiring but strategically helpful.

Here's an example:
In college I studied two majors - let's say that they were computer science and art history. Comp sci was a stereotypical major for asian men, but in my art history classes, I was the only asian-american man. When I would meet someone new in college, and the topic inevitably turned to "what are you studying?", the exchange would go like this 75% of the time:
Me: "computer science..."
Them: (nods) "mmhmm"
Me: "..and art history."
Them: (visibly surprised) "oh, interesting"

This was cathartic to me, since I felt like I was able to reveal the role that had already been assumed upon me by whomever I was talking to. Why would someone be surprised at 'art history' and not 'computer science' unless they were working through some cognitive dissonance, created by first validating my "asian man" role by hearing 'computer science' first, then hearing "art history" that doesn't fit within that role? Just in case this was because of the specific pairing of majors, I would often experiment with switching the order ("I'm studying art history and computer science") and I would rarely receive the same response.

On one hand, these small strategies do work. On the other hand, I hate hate hate that I have to do them, because I wish I could just wear/dress however, and to have less assumptions placed onto me as to what my personality/interests/character is like. However, I feel that if I dress casually, the assumptions onto me will snap back into that singular role of an Asian-American man that most white folks have. And on the other other hand, I see my strategy of presenting myself deliberately as an inevitable labor that I need to do to be approached as a person, not as a role/slot/archetype. What's the answer? I don't know.

And lastly, a huge huge part of this process has been understanding my own implicit biases as a result of being asian-american. How does asian-american-ness play a part in whiteness, and how is it both simultaneously oppressed by and taking advantage of white supremacy?

I'm happy to talk more. I didn't expect to ramble on so much - clearly this strikes a nerve in me. So glad that you're getting a lot of responses to this question.

and also:

I had to suck in my teeth a little bit when I read your question, and then had to remind myself that white supremacy, capitalism, and the patriarchy pits all of us against eachother for competition when we could be in solidarity instead.

<3 Thank you for saying this, yueliang!
posted by suedehead at 6:27 PM on September 15, 2018 [22 favorites]

So I wanted to write in support of what suedehead wrote. Yes, we should be mindful of the way our own privilege gives us advantages in life, and yes, the way Asian American men is treated is different from the way Asian American women are treated, and that is awful.

However, I don't feel it's particularly useful to answer the question with "you should immediately dismantle the way society currently works", and an Asian American living in NYC probably does have some experience with people asking them where they're really from, etc. While it would be great if we could righteously challenge racism every time it occurs, a lot of things are ambiguous, and a lot of times when people say "I think that was racism ..." a lot of other people jump in and want to make you mathematically prove that the person was racist. ("Maybe the shopkeeper greeted all white people and not you because ...") Frankly, POC are not generally believed when they say something is racist. ("It was a JOKE, OBVIOUSLY it was a JOKE.")

Much as suedehead writes, my own experience with this is that people have stereotypes that go beyond "Asian guy" and into a number of sub-stereotypes which depend on a lot of things, including where they grew up, what media they consume, etc. People will look at you and instantly put you into a stereotype, so I feel like I have to put a little more effort into how I present myself: people treat me VERY differently if they look at me and think "Fancy Asian" vs "Delivery Asian" vs "Nerd Asian." I know some people go super the other direction away from the stereotypes and become "Jock Asian" or "Hip hop Asian", but I dunno, I've never tried it, I stick mostly with "Fancy Asian". People are less friendly, but they're much more polite.

And also completely honestly and unhelpfully, the thing that's helped me most is being tall. They don't expect us to be tall.
posted by Comrade_robot at 3:34 AM on September 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

But one person shouldn't have to work harder than someone else because she wasn't given the same opportunities as others.

I mean, yeah. Of course we shouldn't have to. That's why racism is bad. But that doesn't change the world we live in. The reality is that we (minorities) do often have to try harder to get the results that white people take for granted. It's not fair. It is unjust. It is okay to grieve that or be angry about it. But it is still true. All of these "strategies" that people suggest for managing or fighting racism are work. And they are work that white people are not necessarily required to do or even think about, but we are.

Working harder, fighting harder, isn't some laudable mythos that only the heroes of colour perform. It's what's required to get results. It's responding to the reality of the world around you whether you like that reality or not.

Being confrontational about microagressions doesn't necessarily do anything about the type of implicit bias OP is talking about, the type that decides if people answer your emails or engage with you socially or give you a job or a promotion or a speeding ticket or a smile or a tip or an interruption of your sentence or adequate health care or restaurant recommendations... You can't confront that because you won't know about it. It doesn't always show itself the way the microagressions you are talking about do.

And even when it does, confronting microagressions is work. Being alert and on the lookout for them is work. Being ready to defend your heart against them is work.

Mitigating the possible results of implicit bias is work. Sending 30 emails to get a response when your white friends only have to send 10 or managing your image so that people "overlook" your race or sex socially or professionally is work, it's extra work and it's a lot of work. You can chose to opt out and that choice is valid but chosing to opt out will not change anything or achieve whatever goal requires that work, unfair though it may be.
posted by windykites at 7:08 AM on September 16, 2018 [7 favorites]

Alas, he let that one go.

Alas, so did you.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 12:52 AM on October 12, 2018

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