AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Starbucks' plan to close all of its U.S. stores for an afternoon to give their employees racial bias training has a lot of people asking, will this even work? We know little about what the training will include. Starbucks has said they'll be looking at implicit bias, among other things. For some thoughts about how all of this might go down, we called up Alexis McGill Johnson. She runs racial bias workshops for the Perception Institute. I began by asking her, what exactly is implicit bias?
ALEXIS MCGILL JOHNSON: Implicit bias is our brains' automatic processing of negative stereotypes that have become embedded in our brains over time about particular groups of people oftentimes without our conscious awareness. They are essentially associations that we've come to link with particular groups' traits and characteristics that help us navigate and make quick decisions about who those people are.
CHANG: But my first question to that is, can you actually teach implicit bias out of somebody? Can you recircuit the brain?
JOHNSON: Yeah, can you actually retrain your brain to see people differently?
JOHNSON: Absolutely. Can you do it in a short period of time - absolutely not. It's taken centuries for our brains to create these negative schemas about particular groups of people that have been marginalized in society. And so it will take a really concerted, intentional effort to develop the counter-stereotypes that are required to move them out of our brains and replace them with others.
CHANG: So give us some concrete examples of how you would try to cultivate awareness of biases in ourselves. How do you teach this?
JOHNSON: Well, actually, I kind of think our workshops are quite fun and quite disarming. We use the science of how our brains work. We start with an idea of a fairness paradox, this idea that most of us believe ourselves to be fundamentally fair. We believe in the egalitarian of all races and genders. And yet these behaviors arise, and then we cannot explain - we can't account for the disparity in outcomes.
And so the question we've raised at Perception is perhaps the way we've been practicing fairness is flawed. We've been taught to be colorblind. We've been taught that we can be objective when it comes to evaluating people, and the science suggests that sometimes our values aren't sufficient for us to actually practice those pieces because our brains see race very quickly.
JOHNSON: They see gender very quickly and end up overriding that.
CHANG: But what would you - like, give me an exercise you would do at one of these workshops to sort of illustrate that tension.
JOHNSON: Sure. Why don't we do this. So the radius of a wheel is called a...
JOHNSON: I tell you something funny. It's a...
JOHNSON: I don't drink Pepsi. I like...
JOHNSON: The white part of an egg is called a...
JOHNSON: The white part of an egg is called an egg white (laughter).
CHANG: Oh, my God, you totally pulled me in. Wait. How am I learning about racial bias in that? (Laughter) Connect the dots for me.
JOHNSON: Yes, absolutely - right? - because your brain was automatically processing things, right?
JOHNSON: It was anticipating things, right?
JOHNSON: Your brain has...
JOHNSON: I like to say our brains are like Google - right? - that every experience you've had, every show you've watched, everything that you've read - I mean, we develop, derive bias from just seeing certain pairings of words together over time. And those bits of information help us navigate our unconscious processes.
CHANG: OK, but you are talking about rejiggering some really fundamental processes going on in the human brain. And it sounds like this Starbucks training might just be one afternoon. Given your experience, how much can you accomplish in one afternoon? Would that even be meaningful?
JOHNSON: I think at best it will spark curiosity and an awareness that biases do not make us bad people - they actually make us human - but that we do have a capacity to override them. And it's really important for us to build in systems and practices that help us do that.
CHANG: Alexis McGill Johnson is executive director of the Perception Institute. Thanks very much for joining us today.
JOHNSON: Thank you so much for having me.
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