Jane Waite is the senior associate for Social Justice Learning & Engagement and director of the Social Justice Initiative with the Office of Faculty Affairs. Many staff and faculty have taken courses with Waite aimed at expanding their understanding of social justice and issues of race, diversity and inclusion. Here we discuss with Waite how the stress and distraction of social and emotional changes during the COVID-19 pandemic can impact how we interact with others, and how we can consciously work toward not defaulting to our biases or making judgments based on false assumptions.

How has this pandemic altered our ability to make decisions and choices?

We are impacted in so many ways, both emotionally and analytically. One thing I think is really important for us to keep in mind as a professional community is the impact of the implicit biases we carry. We are all facing alarming and unprecedented vulnerable decision points in which research shows our implicit bias can most easily be validated as invisibly over-ruling our explicit beliefs and intentions. The challenges we are faced with are unprecedented (for most of us), complex, require fast decisions, and we may be relying unusually on personal discretion that directly impacts individuals. We might have very altruistic intentions, but our actual actions might be less so.

How is implicit bias defined and how does it show up in our choices?

I think it’s helpful if we first frame implicit bias as resulting in unintended impacts; it’s very different than explicit bias. Implicit bias is not who we are or what we believe, it is a reflection of the world we live in and the seeds planted in us by that world. I say seeds because ideas is too strong a word when we are talking about a pre-conscious cognitive process. I really appreciate the way Anne Gillies (who leads Search Advocate training) talks about implicit bias in the Search Advocate program as “pre-conscious cognitive categories, shortcuts, & thought patterns that unintentionally advantage/disadvantage people based on identity”. Harvard ‘s Project Implicit uses slightly different language, and references implicit attitudes and stereotypes as positive and negative associations that are relatively inaccessible to our conscious awareness and control.

Implicit bias is most easily validated as a predictor in quick “flash” decisions, in pressured or vulnerable decision points, and in ambiguous contexts with low contrast between the decision points. Implicit bias as a pre-conscious cognitive process has been validated by rigorous research, and it was referenced recently in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling as a valid impact that requires redress. (Texas Department of Housing v. The Inclusive Communities Project) It is real, and it’s really hard to see implicit bias in ourselves. We have to be vigilant or else its very likely that implicit bias will have unintended impacts.

How should we respond when we see others making decisions that appear to be reactionary or that reveal implicit biases?

The appropriate response is respectful, curious, and never judgmental. We need to be as vigilant with ourselves as we are with others, and also as forgiving. All thoughts can be imbued with implicit bias, and in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic it is highly likely that all of our decisions would benefit from scrutiny. It’s good to be curious and ask oneself, or be prepared to ask others, the questions that we assume we are already covering with our excellent intentions. What assumptions ARE we making? Have we thought about impacts across all forms of difference and culture? Do we know enough to make a good decision? Are we centering a specific cultural view as a filter? These are just a few examples, and a good tool to use as a starting place professionally is available from Race Forward.

Importantly, we must speak up whenever we think something needs to be considered, or is missing from the discourse, that might lead to inequitable outcomes of any kind. You don’t have to know the answer, or be sure of anything, to make an inquiry. Yes, it might take another minute, or week, while we attend to these considerations, but if our values are authentic, we slow down to achieve outcomes that evidence our values.

What ways can we learn to recognize implicit bias in ourselves and others?

Anne Gilles and I are both planning remote delivery of classes, and while it’s not the same, our workshops are still available. I think we have to see implicit bias in action within ourselves before we can really begin to work with implicit bias as a viable concept. One of the only reliable tools that will make our implicit bias visible to us is the Implicit Association Test, or IAT. Go to the website of Harvard’s Project Implicit and read up, take some IAT tests, learn how they function and what the research says about implicit bias. The Ohio State has an excellent research-based resource. Remember that we ALL have implicit bias. Be curious, be forgiving. Remember that implicit bias is not who we are, it is a reflection of our world and our exposure to it, not what we believe or feel. If we pay attention, we can begin to see the results of our implicit biases that we have according to the IAT’s we’ve taken. This opens a door, or provides a new lens, for us to view the world through where we see how often good intents do not translate to good impacts, and we become more thoughtful.

Shouldn’t we be more accepting of others’ mistakes during this stressful time and not increase tensions?

Absolutely! We are all under increased pressure and every drop of grace is a gift. We must be kind, and especially forgiving, with ourselves and with others. At the same time, as our institutional norms shatter, we must all step up to the plate to ensure the world we are constantly re-building is as reflective of our inclusive values as it can be. Recognizing the reality of how implicit bias functions and that it is most pervasive in vulnerable decision points should be a rallying place for us to invite and make room for these lines of inquiry. Who is our silence protecting and who does it leave unprotected? If our inclusion values are true we feel better, we sleep better, and we are better colleagues when we know we are doing the best job we can for everyone impacted by our decisions.

How can we overcome our reticence to make others uncomfortable?

By caring enough to leave our own comfort zones, and by leaning into risk; the same way we can effectively respond when we are the one questioned. If OSU is to be recognizable to us a year from now, we must learn to effectively navigate collegial tension to meet our well-established professional and institutional goals. These are times for value-embedded leadership and the lack of it can be devastating. Here at OSU we are seeing the beating heart and soul of our leadership as they take the time to ensure their actions reflect our values and our mission, and it makes such a difference. I would assert that in these times we are all called to be leaders, we all have a vital role to play in supporting one another and our institution, in maintaining and enriching our professional community, and importantly in serving our students. Generally speaking, comfort is highly over-emphasized and has questionable qualities outside of a limited scope. The pandemic places all of us in risk and many of us in danger; we really can’t afford to prioritize collegial comfort, if we ever could. This requires each of us to locate our courage muscle and start flexing it. Like any muscle, it gets stronger, more reliable, and effective with exercise.`

How does implicit bias in our decision-making impact the most vulnerable among us?

This is such an important question. American society is stratified and it is hierarchal; the various identities that people have are organized into a ranking of social acceptance and associated power. The most obvious tools for these rankings are “race” and “gender”, but there are so many. This hierarchy is embedded deeply in American cultural norms and is well-evidenced in current educational processes, in the professional and business enterprise, and in entertainment and social media. We receive reflections of this hierarchy everywhere we are, and it embeds itself inside us whether we agree with it or not. Whether we intend it or not, the most vulnerable among us are the ones at the bottom of this social construction that ranks identity.

In decisions that impact 30,000 students, how do we take care of those whose needs we can’t begin to assume? We really have to pause, and think hard about all the possibilities, we need to ask hard or unusual questions and make informed decisions that provide the widest possible net so we don’t miss anybody. Consider our current miraculous shift to all-remote instruction for instance. Just like in face to face learning environments, what we assume students know or what resources they have access to makes a huge, often invisible (to us) statement about expectations, who meets those expectations and thus, who belongs. As a student, if the instructor has planned for everyone to use Zoom effectively, and the majority of your class is zooming along but you aren’t for any number of reasons beyond your control, the barriers you face may feel like your fault and to speak up would expose your inadequacy and increase your vulnerability. So, if we approach our students with curiosity rather than assumption, with empathy and assurance, we are much more likely to catch those who are most vulnerable. We might assume we are doing that because that is our intent, but we might not actually be doing it well. Are we asking at the end of a section now and then -  ‘everyone getting this, anyone having problems?’ - then flying on when no hands go up in the participant list? Or are we checking in with every student to make sure they have what they need and asking what may not be working?

~ interview by Theresa Hogue