OSU researchers plan to talk broadly about implicit bias, while acknowledging the concept is merely a starting point for discussing racial inequities

Things have always been busy at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, a research-centered arm of Ohio State. But ever since global protests erupted following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, and the ensuing conversations about racism that have taken place at the individual and societal levels, the Kirwan staff has been fielding requests nonstop.

Since its founding in 2003, Kirwan has been called upon for its expertise during racially charged events, whether it’s the 2016 presidential election, the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri, or the police killing of Black men like Eric Garner and Freddie Gray. But this time feels different.

“The protests have caused a large influx of training requests from people who maybe wouldn't have known about our work in the past,” said Preshuslee Thompson, a training and facilitation specialist at Kirwan. “We're really starting to be more of a guide in these last couple months. I've been having a lot more brainstorming sessions with organizations than I did in the past. ... People are looking to establish more long-term relationships with us, and that's been a beautiful thing.”

“Kirwan is being asked to come in to spaces to help with that process of figuring out, ‘What does a policy change for inclusion look like in our organization? … What are the kinds of conversations that we should or could be having about where we go from these protests?’” said Kirwan research associate Kip Holley. “It's such an unprecedented time, so that's a really exciting space to be in.”

During a pandemic with social distancing requirements in place, Kirwan is providing community education through a series of virtual forums. Tomorrow (Thursday, July 30) at 11 a.m., Thompson, Holley and senior researcher Kelly Capatosto will livestream a discussion titled “Beyond Implicit Bias” (register for free here).

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“Kirwan has been giving implicit bias trainings and leading a lot of the work around implicit bias for about the past five years now,” Capatosto said. “We're seeing a large amount of people that are requesting trainings and information about implicit bias, but at the same time, we've been doing this work for a while, and as the field has developed and grown, we also want to talk about the limitations of some of the implicit bias research.”

One of the goals of the discussion is to talk about implicit bias in a way that focuses not so much on an individual’s unconscious biases, but how bias is embedded within institutions and organizations. “Focusing on the policy level, instead of just changing individual behavior, results in very different outcomes,” said Capatosto, who also noted while the term “implicit bias” is more commonplace now than it was several years ago, it also tends to be misunderstood. “We've had examples of folks reaching out to us with what are essentially hate crimes, and we've been asked to give some commentary around, ‘How does implicit bias play in this situation?’ Implicit bias isn't a catch-all for all instances of racism that we see in society.”

Thompson agreed. “There are moments where people are trying to use implicit bias to explain something that is explicit racism, not something that's implicit,” she said. “Another thing that I see people struggle with is, they think that because our implicit process functions automatically within our minds, that we're just automatic. We're going to have bias reactions, and we're never going to be able to get rid of our implicit biases. And although a portion of that is true … it does not mean that we do not have a moral responsibility to mitigate our implicit biases. It's very easy to mitigate our implicit biases. People have a tendency to use its automatic processing as an excuse for their behavior rather than holding themselves accountable.”

Capatosto has noticed two distinct audiences for Kirwan’s virtual forums and trainings. “We have folks that probably weren't interested and weren't necessarily ready for conversations about implicit bias or institutional bias or even feeling comfortable talking about racism [a few months ago] who are really excited and wanting to get engaged right now,” she said. “But then we have a whole group of people that have already been on this journey for a very long time, have been leading this work, and have been really excited and eager for next steps.”

The virtual forum provides an opportunity for Kirwan to talk broadly about what implicit bias is and what it isn’t, while also acknowledging that implicit bias is only a starting point for discussing racial inequities. “Understanding implicit bias, or understanding race, or understanding any of the topics related to racial injustice, is not just a one-and-done thing,” Holley said. “It has to take place over a longer period of time, with multiple touches.”