Mindfulness as a way to offset racial bias

Terri Pilkerton, LPC, MAEd, NCC on Apr 07, 2022

None of us would consciously admit to being racist. We know that discriminating against an entire race is wrong. At the same time, research indicates that on an unconscious level, we are all racially biased.

In their book Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People, authors Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald explore the extent to which subconscious group-based preferences exist. The book draws from a research method called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). The test, developed in 1995 by Greenwald, was designed to explore unconscious levels of racial bias. Within the IAT, test participants are asked to distinguish faces of European and African origins. Results of the study indicate that most Americans, regardless of their own race, have an automatic preference for white over black. The test is available to the public and posted on the Harvard University’s Project Implicit website (www.implicit.harvard.edu).

It is important to distinguish implicit bias from explicit bias. Implicit bias occurs almost entirely outside of our conscious awareness. In the case of explicit bias, individuals are aware of their prejudices and attitudes, positive or negative, toward certain groups. Examples of explicit bias include overt racism and racist remarks.

Implicit bias involves rapid and automatic associations and is the result of mental associations that have been formed over time. From early childhood, we receive direct and indirect messages about different groups of people. Exposure to certain groups over time imprints in our brain to unconsciously and automatically identify certain characteristics with certain groups, regardless of whether or not they align with reality.

What is happening in our brain to cause biased thoughts and behaviors? The simplest explanation is related to survival instincts and dates back to our early ancestors. Because resources were scarce, there was safety in numbers. We learned to cooperate with and stay close to those in our tribe, our kin. The more kin — those who shared our genetic traits — the safer we became. Therefore, those people that look like I do must be kin. Those who look different must be the enemy.

In order to figure out a way to correct implicit bias, we must first understand what is happening in our brain. Fortunately, neuroscience has become increasingly able to pinpoint specific regions of the brain that are responsible. The amygdala, an almond-shaped collection of cells located near the base of the brain, has emerged as a key region. The amygdala is the part of the brain that processes fear and creates a stress response. Activation of the amygdala causes a form of rapid “social categorization” whereby we routinely and swiftly sort people into groups. The amygdala is where emotions are given meaning, remembered, and attached to associations and responses to them. We use these “emotional memories” to form a narrative. Biases arise as a result of our brain working to find patterns and create narratives in order to navigate the vast amount of stimuli coming at it. Culture, media, and upbringing also contribute to the formation of emotional memory.

OK, so we are all a little racist. What can we do to change this? Several studies suggest that practicing mindfulness can help us to reduce prejudice by lessening our cognitive biases — automatic errors in our thinking, which impact our judgements of other people. Mindfulness is a gentle and nonjudgmental awareness in the moment of our thoughts, feelings, and environment.

The first step to making any change is to recognize it. As we begin to notice cues or triggers for prejudiced thoughts, we can begin to replace those biased responses. This may sound easy, but it takes practice. Research offers evidence that we can reduce racial bias with intentional practice. These practices include:

  • Exposure to counter-stereotypes. In one experiment, individuals showed measurably less implicit bias toward Asian Americans after viewing the movie The Joy Luck Club, which is about Asian American immigrants in the United States.
  • Empathy. Imagining the perspective of someone of another race if you were in their situation can help you to develop an appreciation for what their concerns are.
  • Creating positive interactions. Increased engagement with members of another race will increase positive interactions.
  • Contrasting negative stereotypes. As an example, when you think or hear of a negative stereotype about African Americans, compare that stereotype to a friend or famous person of the race, such as Shirley Chisholm or President Obama.

In reducing our susceptibility to cognitive biases, mindfulness could play a role in improving social relationships and create more harmony.

As counselors, we access our training in multicultural competence in order to acquire positive clinical outcomes in cross-cultural encounters with patients. This, of course, is a necessary part of our training. The glitch is that traditional counselor education programs tend to focus more on explicit forms of bias. As a result, unconscious negative attitudes and stereotypes often continue to impact individuals of color. 

It is important for counselors to identify cultural blindspots and areas of inexperience. A first step toward this goal is to take the Implicit Association Test (IAT). From there, forming a consultation and accountability group with peers can also help begin to break down racial bias. During intake sessions with new patients, consider incorporating the Cultural Formulation Interview (CFI) DSM-5 CULTURAL FORMULATION INTERVIEW QUESTIONS. This can help you to identify the unique needs of your patients. To gain a better understanding of family context, you may also want to work with your patient to create a culturagram. Consider reading Blindspot by psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. Seek out and attend workshops and seminars on unconscious bias and engage in and initiate dialogue about implicit bias with other therapists.

Mindfulness opens us up to greater control over our emotions, focus, and increased capacity to think clearly and act with purpose. While far from being a quick fix in addressing the vast racial inequities embedded in our society, mindfulness may be a good first step toward acknowledging bias and becoming more compassionate. Daily practice may help to recognize and interrupt the thought patterns that contribute to actions based on bias.

Perhaps the words of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, best known for chronicling the black American experience, sum it up best: “Race is the least reliable information you can have about someone. It's real information, but it tells you next to nothing.”

Terri Pilkerton is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Arlington, VA.

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