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Racial bias influences everyone but can be overcome, according to leading expert

Racial bias is something everyone is vulnerable to and is often triggered by certain situations, according to Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt who was Wednesday’s guest lecturer for the B. W. Bastian lecture series. 

Dr. Eberhardt is a professor of psychology at Stanford University and is one of the leading experts on unconscious bias. 

“[Bias] affects our perceptions, our decision making and our actions in, sometimes, ways that are problematic and can cause harm,” Eberhardt said. 

Eberhardt also said in her lecture racial bias does not have to be inspired by hate and can be expressed unintentionally. 

“Bias does not require bad actors,” Eberhardt said. “Bias can be triggered by context. It can be triggered by the situations we find ourselves in.”

Eberhardt discussed different environments where racial bias occurs such as the criminal justice system, how children are disciplined in schools and how people are treated in the workplace.

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt discusses how experiments showed that people who were exposed to black faces were more able to recognize a weapon in a blurred photo as a part of her
lecture on unconscious bias at the B. W. Bastian lecture series Sept. 11. Eberhardt is one of the leading experts on unconscious bias and says it influences all of us no matter who we are.
(Photo Credit: Lewis Figun Westbrook)

In regards to criminal justice, studies concluded that people could more easily recognize and were more likely to misidentify a weapon when first shown the picture of a black man, according to Eberhardt. 

In school, studies showed teachers gave harsher punishments to students with stereotypically black names than students with stereotypically white names, Eberhardt said. Teachers were also more likely to look towards black children when expecting trouble.

Finally, studies in the workforce showed employers were more likely to reject resumes with black-sounding names, according to Eberhardt. 

There are certain things that can trigger racial bias in situations like these, according to Eberhardt. These triggers include lack of time, subjective standards, lack of accountability, lack of training, fear, fatigue, stress and cultural norms amongst other things.

According to Eberhardt, one way to overcome this bias is to slow down. An example of this is shown in a study that required police officers to identify if there was actual evidence to justify stopping someone on the street. The checklist lowered the number of negative police interactions significantly, Eberhardt said.

“Real change is possible in many settings,” Eberhardt said. “Sometimes the root to that change is hard, and it’s complicated and it’s expensive. But sometimes change can be produced by simply checking a box.

Students who attended the lecture said listening to what Eberhardt had to say changed how they are going to approach their unconscious bias. 

“I’m going to be more considerate of the voice that I speak [with],” said Obaid Barakzai, an international political economics major. “And maybe doing some reflections on the things that I say and the words that I use.”

Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt signs a copy of her book “Biased” for an attendee of her lecture in the Tanner Atrium on Sept. 11. Eberhardt’s lecture was the first in the B. W. Bastian series for the year and discussed how environments and situations can trigger unconscious bias.
(Photo Credit: Lewis Figun Westbrook)

The lecture also made students want to discuss the issue of unconscious bias further.

“The part of her research about adding things to slow down your thought process and decision making are really cool, and I sort of want to plant that seed in people’s heads,” said Julia Vorsteveld, an English major.

Eberhardt said she hopes people come away from the lecture with a better understanding of bias and how it can be triggered by situations. Eberhardt also said even though we are all influenced by bias, it is possible to overcome it.

“Although racial bias can touch our lives in so many ways,” Eberhardt said. “We’re not doomed to be under its grip.” 

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