Breaking the Myth of Meritocracy: Examining and Confronting Implicit Bias

No-one could argue that North Carolina native John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), a slave-owner, influential congressman, and seventh Vice President of the United States was a racist. “Freedom makes negroes crazy,” he once said about free blacks living in the North. But fast forward to today, and what about your teachers? Your judges? Your coworkers? Your neighbors? You? Is racism so easy to spot?


To help answer that question, on November 7th, a Breaking the Myth of Meritocracy panel at WHYY borrowed Calhoun’s words for its title. Moderated by Little Giant Creative co-founder Tayyib Smith, Freedom Makes Negroes Crazy examined the pervasive effects of implicit bias in contemporary life, and the ways our government, educational institutions, and media have made us believe that inclusion and equality are dangerous.


Partly because of implicit bias, racism is not as easy to recognize in our everyday selves as it is in historic figures like Calhoun.


You will never meet a racist in Hollywood, said panelist Andrew Ti, the Los Angeles-based screenwriter and creator and co-host of the popular Yo, Is This Racist? podcast. But “we get together year after year, and churn out a racist product.”


The vast majority of TV shows and movies that hit the big time may not have explicitly racist themes or content, but their lack of systematic representation of diverse groups, onscreen and off, show the drumbeat of implicit bias.


According to panel organizers, “implicit bias,” also called “implicit social cognition,” is hard-wired into all of us, no matter how woke we think we are, and even if we ourselves are part of a marginalized group. Implicit biases can be positive or negative, and they work without conscious control. “Implicit associations” camping out in our minds (often steeped in centuries of bigotry) give us instant feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics like their race, age, gender, or appearance. Our experiences as youngsters and our media consumption are both major influencers of implicit bias, which can sometimes even run counter to the beliefs we hold.


But there’s good news: “Implicit biases are malleable.” We can gradually unlearn them through awareness and practice. The recent panel at WHYY was a great place to start.


Smith asked the panelists how people working in the criminal justice system can engender trust in an environment rife with implicit bias, especially in a city like Philadelphia, with its echoes of the MOVE bombing and the tenure of Mayor Frank Rizzo.


Panelist Arun S. Prabhakaran, Chief of Staff to Philly D.A. Larry Krasner, said you have to “think differently, talk differently, and then do differently.” And he’s interested in the basic philosophical question of implicit bias: “Who’s the bad guy?”


Ti and Prabhakaran disagreed on how to confront bigotry. Rally the people who might be persuadable, Ti suggested, and then take on the bigoted holdouts together. But Prabhakaran said that to really challenge racism, you have to directly target the worst offenders up front: “I am not an incrementalist.”


White supremacy, Prabhakaran noted, is an international concept—as well as an internalized one, sometimes working within the very communities it oppresses. And people often refuse to face it in their personal lives, Ti added. He recently wrapped the 1000th episode of Yo, Is This Racist?, and he said one thing that people still strenuously defend is the idea of “not being attracted to a person of a certain race.” Across a wide spectrum, he said, “sex stuff is weird. People just want to pretend it’s magic,” instead of actually confronting the ingrained bias.


The lack of inclusion in Hollywood isn’t magic either, even when things seem to be getting better on screen, with more diverse casts and directors, and blockbusters like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians anchored by people of color.


Ti explained that the white executives who still hold the reins in Hollywood currently have a trendy, profitable incentive to hire more diverse casts—but there still isn’t any institutional structure to support diversity at all levels in the industry. As a screenwriter, he says, when he pitches a TV show, there’s always a “white draft.” It doesn’t matter if he’s going into the pitch with, for example, an Asian director and a diverse cast. “I still have to sit in front of four white guys in suits and explain what the hell I’m talking about.”


Panelist T. Shá Duncan Smith also understands the challenge of a workplace that is inclusive only on the surface. She’s the Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion and Community Development at Swarthmore College. 


“Sometimes, I wish people would not recruit me, because they need to work on their organizational culture,” she said. Are you ready to celebrate someone’s identity? Or are you merely prepared to tolerate it? When you talk doubtfully about whether or not, for example, a person of color is a “fit” for your organization, “your implicit bias is showing.”


Panelist Maribel Valdez Gonzalez, a San Antonio-based educator and program coordinator for Amplifier, spoke about overcoming implicit bias in educational scenarios.


Tayyib Smith asked where we see implicit bias in children, and Gonzalez said try teaching “world culture” to sixth graders in Texas. Our textbooks and curricula emphasize the “benefits” of colonizers, like Constitutional freedoms of speech or religion, but we don’t hear about violence and death. She likes to challenge her students to think about what a pre-colonized world looked like, before countries and the borders between them.


“It’s doing double the work,” she said of her educational experience. She has to teach the kids to succeed on tests—but also help them start to unpack the toxic racism and colonialism that everyday curricula normalize. But it is possible to combat implicit bias in children: They need “mirrors and windows into other cultures,” and to learn about worlds other than their own.


Part of waking up from our biases is realizing these truths are both universal and nuanced. Gonzalez said that no matter who you are, there are biases to tackle. Even when we agree racism is bad, colorism, homophobia, or transphobia might be rampant. Everyone has “a duty to call in their people.”


Ti said he wishes would-be white allies would realize how much they still center themselves in conversations about race. “You’re nominally listening … but you’re still making this about yourself,” he said of white people who can’t get past their own offended or defensive feelings about racism, or the need to prove that they personally are not racist, instead of taking real action.


As Duncan Smith puts it, “You’re not woke. You’re in the process of awakening.”