‘After there’s a problem, it’s already too late’: What implicit bias training really is

Implicit bias training is a term you’ve heard frequently over the last few years.

You’ve heard it mentioned when it was added to the training of Indianapolis police officers after the fatal shooting of Aaron Bailey. You’ve heard it as a requirement for all Indiana State University students living in residence halls after a freshman discovered “black lives don’t matter” written on the dry-erase board outside her dorm room.

You heard it when a curator recruited to promote more culturally diverse galleries at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields left her post, citing the lack of such training as one of the many factors contributing to a “toxic” environment that fails people of color.

The term implicit bias is used to describe the automatic, unconscious stereotypes we associate with people or places. Unconscious biases are related to our attitudes and behaviors.

Dr. Rashawn Ray, a University of Maryland sociology professor who specializes in police-civilian relations who serves as a consultant with the Indianapolis-based Black Onyx Management.

That can impact how we think about or behave towards people, taking the form of preferential treatment or discrimination without our conscious knowledge. 

These trainings aim to help people identify their implicit biases and how they may affect their behavior towards others.

For Rashawn Ray, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in Governance Studies at The Brookings Institution who has been doing research and training related to implicit bias for more than a decade, doing this kind of training, and doing it right, is more crucial than ever.

“A lot of companies simply aim to use implicit bias training as a place filler and as a box to check off,” said Ray, who also works as a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park. “They oftentimes don’t really want to put the work in to address how implicit bias impacts hiring, promotion, discipline, retention … they really don’t want to focus on those issues.”

Taking action in Indianapolis

Ray’s years of expertise are now having an impact locally. He is a consultant with Indianapolis-based Black Onyx Management Inc. focused on research and training.

Black Onyx is the diversity and inclusion management consultancy that recently launched a two-part campaign to spotlight Black-owned businesses and engage corporate allies to increase diversity in hiring and promotions in Central Indiana. 

Tamara Cypress, the campaign’s creator, said the goal is to make Indianapolis a better place to live and work.

Ray says proper implicit bias training and a long-term commitment to make it part of an organization’s core values are a big part of accomplishing this goal. 

He explains that a key element in getting companies to commit to extended training is changing the perception of it. Often, implicit bias training is presented as a solution after discrimination has already occurred.

“For example, when we work with police departments, we say when there aren’t any problems is when you should do this because if you do it after there’s a problem, it’s already too late,” Ray said. “People make assumptions that if a company is engaging in implicit bias training, that means that they’ve been accused of something or that something bad has happened. We have to dispel that. We have to make it normative.”

Ray says the most effective kind of implicit bias training is instruction that provides an opportunity for people to be reflective about their own unconscious attitudes, and how their biases may impact their behavior, treatment and perceptions of other people.

The training should done at the outset to ensure that there is racial equity in hiring, promotions, retention and discipline. It should also be reassessed on a regular basis the same way many companies have annual training for issues like cybersecurity and sexual harassment.

What the training is like

Harvey Baker, chief of the University Park Police Department in University Park, Maryland, took a proactive approach to training. A town of 2,500 people, University Park’s police department has just nine members, including Baker. 

Baker was sworn in as the town’s first African-American chief in January 2019 and wanted to begin his tenure by finding new ways to strengthen his police department.

Harvey Baker, chief of the University Park Police Department in University Park, Maryland. Baker is University Park’s ninth chief of police and the first African-American to lead the department.

He said he took into consideration the town’s history as a former sundown town and wanted to continue the decades of work the community has done to move forward from its past. A sundown town is a place that did not allow people of color after sunset.

So he turned to implicit bias training with Ray.

“When the police chief says that that he’s part of the training with his subordinates and allows (the public) to see how he’s processing information and how he’s looking at it, I think it tears down walls. It also increases a buy-in from your officers,” Baker said.

The training itself took Baker by surprise. He said the multi-day course included training complete with VR goggles and a virtual weapon. 

Baker said he and officers played through scenarios in a video game setting. The situations would unfold differently based on the decisions officers made. 

Baker, 57, said the video game format was tricky for him and some of his Baby Boomer officers. But they worked through it. 

“So if I go there with all my implicit biases and I act aggressive, guess what’s going to happen?” Baker said. “The person of the party that I’m dealing with is going to act aggressive, and that’s what they capture in the training which I thought was beneficial.”

Ray says effective training is not a “one or two hour one-off” that can be completed by employees in a single afternoon by clicking the correct answers to multiple choice questions.

“This is an extended program that puts people in interactions and conversations with one another to actually seriously engage the issue,” he said. “We have exercises and computer simulations to help people realize what their implicit biases might be, and I think more importantly, help them develop strategies to mitigate the potential impact those implicit biases may have in their lives.”

Baker, a 30-year-old law enforcement veteran, said the training is also something that is now part of the daily work at his department. He believes it is something that should be incorporated into all law enforcement training from day one — and for years to follow. 

“It’s important to start the training in the police academy because if you hire somebody and all you do is reinforce the warrior mindset … when they get on the street it’s going to be further reinforced by their training officer, and now you have a warrior officer,” Baker said. “But if you want an officer who’s going to be a protector or guardian, then you’ve got to reinforce that in the police academy.”

Getting the right training

Ray stresses that implicit bias training is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

What is proper training for a police department with hundreds of officers may be improper training for a personal services company with just a dozen employees.

“When we are contacted, we ask a lot of questions. We want to know why you’re doing this … I think where companies make mistakes is that they don’t exactly understand the differences in the types of implicit bias training that might be available,” he said. “For example, some companies may want to solely focus on race while some companies … may need additional help with gender and age bias.”

Ray said specialized training is also needed for the leaders of an organization.

“For the people who work in human resources, for the people who deal with promotions … we aim to work with them because those are the gateways where we see inequalities manifest,” he said.

Capitalizing on the moment

This summer has resulted in increased awareness around the subject of racial inequality. Protests in the streets following of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others have spilled into the boardroom.

Ray said the climate has led to more companies interested in closing existing gaps than in the past. That has been evidenced by many big corporations issuing statements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent months.

Ray said for actual change to happen, the companies making these pledges have to be held accountable.

“I also think that companies are trying to figure out what they can do to diversify their companies, and these need to be best practices that are put in place longer term. Not just in this moment,” he said. “Similar to doing a one-hour implicit bias training or one-off, companies cannot just simply hire one person of color and say that they’ve diversified their company.”

Ray said companies also need to be mindful of the additional stress placed on the shoulders of their Black employees right now. Situations exist where leaders are turning to people of color within their organizations for input or guidance as they work to improve.

“If they ask their Black employees to take on new responsibilities, they need to compensate them for that,” he said. “You ask people to do more work, you ask them to take all more responsibility, you ask him to take on more importance, then you compensate them for that.”

Call IndyStar reporter Justin L. Mack at 317-444-6138. Follow him on Twitter: @justinlmack.