Curing the Disease of “Implicit Bias” Requires Self-Diagnosing Internalized Racism

The internet has been ablaze with a video of police arresting two Black men for waiting for a business associate inside a Starbucks. As is customary, when White men and women engage in heinous acts of racism against Black men and other White people protest the injustice, the explanation from those who care is “implicit bias.” Implicit bias has been used to justify all forms of discrimination ranging from the shooting of unarmed Black men to the arrest of the Black men in Starbucks for the crime of waiting while Black.

Implicit bias is a mysterious disease that overwhelms White people when they come face-to-face with a real life Black person. It causes them to react with some form of discrimination that is totally out of their control and has no apparent cure. White people set U.S. society’s standards for moral behavior and presume themselves to be inherently good. Consequently, when some are caught abusing Black people, the automatic justification is, “we all have implicit bias,” which of course is not true. Not all White people are implicitly biased against Black people.

To his credit, Starbucks chief executive Kevin Johnson has declared a day during which all Starbucks’s employees will be required to participate in implicit bias training. System-wide reactions against discrimination are unusual for a major business and will allegedly cost Starbucks more than seven million dollars. But implicit bias training will not solve the problem of racial discrimination because it focuses on White people’s allegedly unconscious biases toward Black people without explicitly naming the biases as racism, helping White people understand how the biases got inside them, what the biases are likely to make them do, or how such biases can be overcome.

Racial identity theory postulates that rather than focusing on the racism euphemism, implicit bias, diversity trainers should begin to address White people’s internalized racism directly and the schemas by which some of them overcome it. Schemas, which are learned through one’s racial experiences, are the lenses through which White people see, understand, and react to race in their environments.

In the Starbucks video, there are examples of different types of internalized racism schemas. The White woman manager, who saw the men as threats and called the police, and the police who arrested them were using their Reintegration (ordinary racism) schemas. Less obvious types of internalized racism schemas are Contact, or obliviousness to racism, and Disintegration, feelings of confusion and helplessness. The White Starbucks customers standing around watching were likely using their Contact or Disintegration lenses. People using these two schemas do not know what to do in uncomfortable racial situations.

The remedy for implicit bias is evident in the actions of the men’s White business associate, Andrew Yaffe, who engaged the police in a conversation about the injustices of their actions and beseeched other customers to acknowledge the unfairness of the men’s arrest. He could question without getting shot, whereas the Black men could not. The woman who posted the video was engaging in anti-internalized-racism behavior by bearing witness to racial injustice. Ultimately, Johnson is engaging in overcoming internalized racism by taking responsibility for reeducating his employees about race and racism explicitly even though doing so costs Starbucks. In their efforts to counteract racism, the activists in Starbucks used some combination of Pseudo-Independence (helping Black people by doing something for them), Immersion (attempting to re-educate White people), and Autonomy (empathy and self-awareness) schemas.

Helping White people diagnose their racial identity shifts the focus of racism away from a Black person as the catalyst for unconscious bias to the White person who has learned racism. Exploring their own racial identity encourages White people to turn inward and recognize how they do or do not participate in racism. Guided self-analysis offers a remedy White people can use to help themselves control their racial animus by inoculating themselves with strategies that correspond to their own use of racial identity schemas.

Accusing all White people of implicit bias minimizes the treatment needs of those who are manifesting different types of internalized racism. Such misdiagnosis merely leaves them angry, confused, and likely to act out their “implicit bias” the next time they must interact with a real life Black person.


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Janet E. Helms is Augustus Long Professor and Founding Director of the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture at Boston College. She is the author of “A Race Is a Nice Thing to Have: A Guide to Being a White Person or Understanding the White Persons in Your Life.”