Implicit Racism: A Harmful Theory?

The other day, I had a very interesting conversation with a student of color, who is a friend of mine about systems of oppression, specifically racism. For anonymity sake, we will call the student Mike. I was telling Mike about my Contemporary Racism class that I am currently taking and was surprised by his reaction to some of the concepts we are learning about. He seemed to have particular discontent with the concept of implicit bias and implicit racism. I explained implicit racism as a form of racism in which the offender does not realize they are being racist, because their racism takes form at an unconscious level.

Mike felt as though the very use of the theory of implicit racism is racist and problematic in and of itself and excludes the experience of people of color. When I first heard this I was extremely taken aback and confused and I kept trying to defend the theory, but after Mike explained his thinking further what he began to say made sense. The idea of implicit racism is specifically catered to white people. The theory was made specifically to help white people. Mike explained it as such: what is implicit to white people, is explicit to people of color. In other words, when white people implicitly perform a racist behavior, it is in no way implicit to a person of color. To the person of color, the “implicit” act is just plain racist. Mike argued that there should be no distinction between different types of racism (ie: implicit, aversive, old fashioned). There is simply racism. Mike felt as though the theory of implicit racism coddles whites and gives them an excuse for being racist. It gives whites an easy way out: if it’s unconscious, they can’t help it. Mike’s argument really opened my eyes to another perspective on implicit racism that I hadn’t previously thought of. I hadn’t looked at the theory of implicit racism as being specifically catered towards the benefit of whites. It is ironic how in the efforts white allies take to combat racism, they may engage in racist activities like these in centering on the white experience of implicit bias.

In response to Mike, I do not think it would be productive to eliminate the theory of implicit bias and implicit racism from the curriculum, however. Although it is very centered on whites, I think it is essential for whites to learn about implicit racism to learn how they can take steps to fix and counteract their racist behaviors. If white people don’t learn about implicit racism, they may never recognize that they have unconscious biases and racism would only be exacerbated. Although we should still learn the concept, Mike made me realize that we should also focus on the inherent flaws in the theory, specifically its focus on the white experience. We should highlight how the very techniques we use to eliminate racism can also be the same tools that perpetuate racism. Do you think the theory of implicit racism and bias is racist in and of itself?

1 thought on “Implicit Racism: A Harmful Theory?”

  1. I remember talking with you about this, and I’d like to reiterate and expand on what I said here. In regard to implicit racism theory “coddling” Whites, we talking about the difference between learning that you are implicitly racist and learning that your racism is implicit. The former is the first realization that unconscious biases have impacted your cognition and behavior where POC are concerned, even if you were consciously egalitarian. For a lot of people, this happens the first time they take an IAT. The latter is when you KNOW you’re racist, and then you learn the mechanisms of implicit racism and use them as an excuse.

    For White people, the first experience is what they usually undergo. It’s a scary, painful, and sobering revelation, and not at all “coddling.” These processes aren’t serving up smiles for Whites, they are pulling back the curtain from things we’d be more comfortable not knowing about ourselves. Like Anna says, “No care if you’re not aware.”

    For the White guy who know he’s racist, but then says “There’s nothing I can do about it… it’s implicit!” Mike is right. But for most White people, when we learn about implicit racism it’s a real slap in the face, and it leaves a deep psychological bruise as your egalitarian self-concept is totally devastated. Not coddling.

    Anyway Jennie, I know you already know what I just wrote because you heard it in person. I just wanted to see what other people think about it.

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