When Implicit Bias Training Doesn’t Work,
Disarm Racial Microaggressions

by: Gwendolyn Miller

Implicit biases have for years manifested in many different domains of society. And academic settings are not immune to its poison. That several college and university campuses across America boast cultures of racism, misogyny, homophobia, classism, and other forms of oppression has become evident. On a personal level, these attitudes can manifest in daily interactions through microaggressions, making others feel uncomfortable and aware of the prejudices held against them.

implicit bias training group

These biases, according to Charlotte Ruhl, “often arise as a result of trying to find patterns and navigate the overwhelming stimuli in this very complicated world. Culture, media, and upbringing can also contribute to the development of such biases.”

Removing these attitudes, however, are a challenge, “especially because we often don’t even know they exist,” Ruhl, who works at an implicit social cognition research lab at Harvard University wrote in Simply Psychology.

For too long, “acceptance, silence, passivity, and inaction have been the predominant, albeit ineffective, strategies for coping with microaggressions,” according to Derald Wing Sue, professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University. “Inaction does nothing but support and proliferate biased perpetrator behaviors which occur at individual, institutional and societal levels.”

Interventions Needed; About Implicit Bias Training, and when it fails

Bias trainings have become a type of cure-all intervention for diversity-related issues. However, this approach does not account for “the systemic and structural issues that allow biases to be perpetuated in the workplace,” according to Janice Gassam Asare, Forbes senior contributor for diversity, equity, and inclusion.

A study published in The Journal of Applied Psychology found that when people are provided evidence regarding specific stereotypes, their beliefs are reinforced. Therefore, more productive interventions to move beyond microaggressions must be critically examined.

A growing body of research shows that three strategies can help to reduce the occurrence of these behaviors in academic settings: psychoeducational interventions, race-based affinity groups, and professional support.

Psychoeducational Interventions

Psychoeducational interventions encompass a broad range of activities that combine education and other activities such as counseling and supportive interventions. Delivered individually or in groups, tailored or standardized, this method should include education and awareness programs combined with universal school-wide practices. Its overall goal is to help individuals better understand what they are facing and is considered part of therapy.

During this type of intervention, both faculty and students can be educated about and unmask their own racial microaggressions. This can take place during planned workshops, conferences, and seminars. The message received however, should be consistent: eliminate racial microaggressions; the detrimental effects caused by these words and actions should not remain unchallenged. This is a topic that I focus on a lot in my workshop for schools.”

Administrators may also codify micro-aggressive behaviors and microassaults that take place on campus or in classrooms as infractions within the school’s code of conduct. Microassaults are overt and conscious-explicit or subtle slights and insults expressed to marginalized groups. Despite the intentions of a planned intervention, not everyone is comfortable being transparent about their experiences in a space shared by those viewed as aggressors.

Race-Based Affinity Groups

A race-based affinity group is a group of people sharing a common race who gather with the intention of finding connection and support. They can be formed within any profession or organization, including education.

The purpose of this type of gathering is “not to force segregation,” according to the Unitarian Universalist Association. The goal is to create a safe space where people can openly discuss their experiences––which often brings about intense emotions––without comment or judgement from those never having been victimized. Marginalized students can be provided support as well as privacy in reporting incidents of microaggressions or microassaults. “I talked about this in my previous article discussing the topic of racial microagressions.”

Critics of affinity groups have labeled them as exclusive and divisive. Yet these gatherings bring people together over a commonality, creating an environment in which they can benefit from interactions with people who share identities and experiences.

Team looking at sticky notes on wall

These groups are valuable for reducing the sense of isolation and discomfort many students of color experience regardless of campus culture or environment and can help boost their self-esteem. A 2012 study performed by educators Julie Parsons and Kimberly Ridley revealed that marginalized students reported “feeling comfortable” in reaffirming and safely exploring aspects of their racial and ethnic identity while participating in affinity groups.

Professional Support

Add to these methods professional support, and an open dialogue on addressing microaggressions can begin.

The strategic goal of professional support is to make the invisible visible. This support should disarm the microaggression, educate the offender about the message s/he sends, and seek further support when needed, according to Narolyn Mendez, a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Levels of support are made available by professionals including consultants and school psychologists. They can educate supportive teachers, administrators, and staff on ways to recognize specific behaviors. Topics presented should include addressing racial microaggressions; facilitating dialogue on race in the classroom; challenging stereotypes about racial groups; and increasing awareness of personal biases.

Trained, experienced professionals can also provide emotional support to marginalized students and teachers and assist them in developing positive coping strategies.

implicit bias training racial microaggressions

Make the Invisible, Visible

Historically, the inability to engage in open conversations on race and racism has led to turmoil, stereotypes, and unjustified prejudices. Bias and diversity trainings are insufficient. If racial microaggressions are to be disarmed, the strategies discussed here must be implemented and practiced, and future studies of the topic must continue. Educating people on racial microaggressions is the cornerstone of creating a culture of inclusivity on college campuses and in classrooms.