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Implicit vs. Explicit Bias

September 27 2016
September 27 2016


Question: Can you explain explicit and implicit bias, or implicit and explicit racism?

Answer: I love this question because, to me, it gets at the heart of some of the reasons of why it is easy to misunderstand each other when we talk about race and racism.

There are reactions to issues that are visceral, deep down, body-responding ways in which we react to something or someone - we call these implicit. The majority of the time, we do not reason through every thought, or even action, and consciously choose our response, our emotional reaction, the posture of our body, or our attitude. Often times, through years and decades of formation, our subconscious or unconscious perceptions influence the way that we receive and reaction to information.

Then there are our conscious thoughts and actions. Our thoughts about what we long for and how we consciously choose to act in the world. We call these our explicit reactions.

Information is constantly being fed into our minds. We are always simultaneously processing sights, smells, tastes, sensations, conversations, colors, and thousands of other tiny (and not tiny) stimuli. According to Dr. John Powell, less than 2% of input that comes into your brain we are able to actually process consciously. That means that almost all our reactions, longing, hopes - more of instinctual movements, and what we categorize as implicit. Just the nature of our brains and hearts can give us some sense of how it is possible to have an implicit (or visceral) negative or positive reaction to something, and that be unintentional or even unknown to yourself.

Then we have times when our reactions are explicit. And honestly, this is the part that tends to inform our mental framework around what it means to be racist or to perpetuate racism. Because when we think about racism, we think about explicit racism. We think about drastic and clear racist things, that are consciously done, and are clearly defined. We tend to think of something being racist only if it is it is explicit - intentionally done in order to harm, oppress, or subjugate a group of people based on their skin tone.

While these explicit forms of racism are clear and true, and also alive and present in our modern culture, so much of our experience of race and racism is actually implicit. Which means that it resides on a deeper, more profoundly unknowing level.

So let’s take some time to concentrate on areas of implicit bias. Because we all know and are able to identify and repent of explicit bias much more easily, but implicit bias is a much more difficult to recognize and identify.

Before we get started, I want to iterate that bias, in and of itself, is not necessarily a wrong thing. We all have biases, and that is okay. But our biases are all things that need to be overcome if they do not match up to reality - and most importantly, especially if they do not match up to the gospel.

What does implicit bias look like?

Implicit bias can manifest in many different forms. It may look like unconscious preferences on who we build community with. Subconscious fears and assumptions about communities and people who operate differently than the social norms that we have attributed as being “right.” Attributing certain characteristics (overwhelmingly negative) with someone based on skin color.

In the Bible there are a couple places that are almost comical about bias. You might call it “body bias” - Saul is asked to be king because he is taller than everyone else. This is an example of bias - for whatever reason, height was valued. (I Sam 10:23-4) Jesus faced this bias as well - his body was described as having nothing in his experience that we would desire him  (Isaiah 53).” Jesus also experienced bias from where he was born - when it was said of him “what good could come from Nazareth?”

I use these examples to say, that these implicit values - height, handsomeness, strength, your city of origin being viewed as valuable - translated to very direct (explicit) actions. Saul being elected as king. Jesus being discredited.

Bias and the Church

For those of you that come from the reform church, as I do - our biases should be easy to admit. We believe in total depravity - radical corruption, thorough sinfulness. We believe we are bent towards sinfulness. There is a pervasiveness in all that we are that bends us away from God. And through Jesus, we are reoriented to what is true, good, and beautiful.

This keeps us from believing that we have some objectivity. This is a myth - we see things from our perspective. We are all individual people who have been formed for years in different contexts, relationships, and perspectives. This is okay! But this is also why we need an Uncommon Family. To show us our blind spots. To give us a sense of a different perspective. To point out what our implicit biases are, and to lovingly, again and again, walk us into freedom and a closer alignment with the gospel, as we move to be transformed into servants of all.

This is a beautiful and hopeful reality. That as we, an Uncommon Family, look together at the world, we have a better chance of figuring out the world. What reality is, who reality is, in Christ Jesus.

That is what this whole Uncommon Family project is about.

Here is a link to a helpful video on Implicit Bias.


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