Notes from a 3 hour implicit bias training

Faculty and staff had mandatory implicit bias training this year.  Last time (>5 years ago) we did this it was voluntary and all I remember from it was the speaker bringing up a (female, foreign-born, adjunct) volunteer from the audience and white male full professors commenting on her clothing and appearance because the speaker asked them what their initial impressions of her were.  It was enormously cringe-worthy.  This time it was a bit better, but I still came away with the feeling that, like economics, perhaps a little training is worse than no training at all.

I think I understand now why implicit bias training has been shown* to decrease implicit bias in people who already understand implicit bias and increases it in people who don’t really believe in it.

The first audience comment was an ageist joke.  Most people laughed.  I told the commenter that was not appropriate.  If I hadn’t been there, would anybody have said anything?

The students took this training for the first time last year.  I now understand why I got comments on my course evals saying that I was micro-aggressive towards white men and favored under-represented minorities and women over said white men.**  This training is focusing on making everybody in the audience feel like victims and giving them the language to talk about that.  I work very hard at inclusion in my classes and inclusion can feel like micro-aggression to the majority who is used to feeling like they’re special.  The first example the speaker gave was an example about the speaker hearing someone using the term “redneck” and joking, “you did not just say that.”  To her credit, she noted that most of the (Southern) audience was staring at her in disbelief and asked why.  After some native Southerners pointed out that was a pretty milquetoast insult, I noted that there really aren’t any powerful epithets against native straight white men in the US.  People in the audience seemed to agree.  (They probably didn’t need me there for that one.)

During various exercises, one straight white guy after another shared anecdotes about when they felt like they’d been discriminated against or stereotyped.  So many short-haired white guy heads nodded during these recounting while the rest of us just sat there.  The speaker applauded them for their sharing and made points about how everyone is put into groups.

It went on like that.  I broke in a few times to note that thinking you’re aware isn’t enough– people don’t realize that they’re calling on men more than women– they think they’re being equivalent.  They think 35% is 50%.  So you really do need to keep track of who is talking, or (as another professor suggested) you need to randomize cold-calls.  I talked about how to make cold-calling less scary and how to include more students, even those who are silenced.  I talked about other techniques that can be used to make groups more inclusive.  Having good intentions isn’t enough.   But thinking it is enough is dangerous.

There was a lot of talking about problems, nothing about solutions.   The speaker brought up examples of incidents and asked if we’d seen them and to discuss them (and how they make people feel), but didn’t talk about possible bystander reactions.  There was no discussion of relative difficulty, no checking white guy privilege.  Most of the exercises had the purpose of making people understand what it feels like to be discriminated against… but, as I said before, for people who aren’t actually discriminated against, not being treated like princes feels a lot like discrimination.

I suspect there’s implicit bias training that works better than what most universities are presenting.  This is not yet a solved problem.  What can be done in a 3 hour lecture hall, even with group exercises?  I don’t know.  But my other colleague who has studied this a lot for that university-level committee we were on thinks that maybe not trying to cover everything and instead focusing on the major problems affecting our students and our faculty right now according to the latest campus climate survey (islamaphobia, racism, homophobia, gender discrimination, or some subset thereof) and providing solutions on what to do for various instances might be the way to go.  If these were smaller sessions, maybe the IAT (though again, its use has had mixed results depending on how receptive the participant is).

Have you seen implicit bias training that actually works?

*too lazy to look up the citation, but it featured heavily in a university-level committee I was on

**fairly sure I’m not micro-aggressive towards white men.  However, I am intentionally micro-aggressive (as well as explicitly “you coming in late is disruptive stop doing that”) to people who wander into class late, and last year only white men wandered in late.  Most white men did not wander in late.

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15 Responses to “Notes from a 3 hour implicit bias training”

  1. delagar Says:

    “….for people who aren’t actually discriminated against, not being treated like princes feels a lot like discrimination.”

    God, yes, this. I am thinking of a specific incident where an otherwise intelligent and very decent male student complained about the “bias” in the reading list against white males. When I invited him to provide evidence of that bias, of course white males were, in fact, slightly more than 50% of the reading list.

    I had indeed set out to load the list heavily with non-white, LGBT, and women writers, but it was a Global lit class, and there were white guys we needed to read. You can’t really leave off Plato, for instance, or at least I can’t.

    My point here, and I do have one, is that anything less than 90% feels like discrimination to those who have been used to seeing themselves at the center and everyone else represented only as tokens, if it all.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      It’s so true! There’s research on this too– IIRC, generally it’s somewhere in the 35% range where they feel like women are overrepresented and people would swear it’s over 50% (Note to self: one could probably make money getting people to bet on this…). We all do it, not just white men.

      • Kelly Says:

        I’m intrigued by this number since it’s remarkably close to the percentage of women in my field and men seem to think they are disappearing/the field is now dominated by owmen. Of course, like most stem fields, these women are not making it to the highest ranks.

  2. Omdg Says:

    Often people take negative feedback, even when specific offending behaviors are identified, as a personal attack. Sometimes it IS personal, and not professionally delivered. I do find though, that certain demographics are less accepting of feedback than others, and are quick to blame the feedback giver even if it is delivered impersonally and professionally. I’ll give you a dollar if you can tell me which demographics those are. Just kidding, that would be too easy.

  3. becca Says:

    Your reaction to the training reminds me of my reaction to being forced to go to a “this is a library” orientation during grad school. I spent my undergrad doing work study as a library gopher at an academic library with 14 million volumes- I love me some libraries. I was *not* engaged by the training and *also* thought they went about it terribly inefficiently for what I imagined a novice would need. I needed Library 800 not Library 101. You do not need Diversity 101.

    To answer your question, I’ve never seen training that works in that context.
    I’ve seen a lot of diversity and bias training that did work, some of it very impactful and hugely beneficial to me as a human, but that was mostly in intentional communities and led by hippies. The reason your university is requiring this training is to cover their legal rear ends. Nothing that will work for that can also address the emotions that need to be unpacked for people to actually engage in this stuff. That conflict may be why you felt like it was so inefficient.
    If you want to actually increase the skills of faculty for working with diverse students, it’s probably better snuck into voluntary management/mentoring training. The context should be getting the best work out of your students- i.e. appeal to faculty’s self interest. Even there, you’ll only reach the minority of receptive-yet-not-woke faculty, but you can do a lot of good in that crowd.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I may not need Diversity 101, but some of my colleagues and students need it very badly. This course was not helpful for making them better people– just for making them feel like they too are victims.

      This is not the legally required training. That is online and focuses on harassment (I think it’s actually a bit more useful than this was). This was a well-meaning effort by the upper administration on the recommendation of the student diversity committee.

      In terms of focusing on students– the woman running the thing seems to think that all students should be able to share their personal experiences as a confessional during class time and that’s a good thing. She did not like the push-back she got on that from some of our more technical professors who spend a lot of time in class emphasizing that their graduate school classes are about evidence, not opinions.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      So in short, no, I don’t think my reaction to this was like a reaction to a potentially useful library training that I was too advanced for. I think this training was actively harmful.

  4. SP Says:

    That sounds terrible. I’ve never done implicit bias training, so also never have seen any that works.

  5. Alejandro Cornejo Says:

    I do unconscious bias training on the corporate side. The goal of our sessions is to help people realize that we all have biases that affect our behavior and decision making. We incorporate the IAT as pre-work for the session, and it helps in providing a platform for discussion in the groups. We talk about how it can show up in the work place and talk through those examples. The last part of the training focuses on strategies that we can use to mitigate the biases. They are primarily cognitive exercises or scripts that we can incorporate in those situations when we are most vulnerable for bias. I agree with you that having good intentions is not good enough so that’s why this session (1.5) hours is an introductory offering which we are following up with another session that uses insights from behavioral economics and nudge theory to help people implement mitigation strategies more effectively. Thanks for your post.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I know people who have personally said that doing the IAT was really eye-opening for them. Of course, they’re people who are trying to be good people to begin with, not skeptics.

      Your training sounds much more useful than ours was! I wonder if I can talk to the faculty sponsor of the club about getting a more useful trainer.

  6. chacha1 Says:

    “white male privilege 101: how to express your feels about being butthurt over the fact that you are not the center of the universe after all”

  7. Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life Says:

    The only implicit bias communication that I’ve ever seen that even remotely approached effective was a couple of cartoons written using animals as analogues for people with and without privileges. Alas, that doesn’t begin to approach the kind of training people need to understand what implicit bias truly is, or does. That training you had sounds absolutely awful :/


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