Law professor discusses mischief of implicit bias

Barbara Bell, News Editor

“We all have biases and they exist in all forms,” Washington University School of Law Professor Kimberly Norwood said in her opening remarks to the University community on Oct. 28. 

Norwood spoke to audience members in a talk entitled “The Mischief of Bias in our Lives.”

Associate Provost for Diversity Bridget Newell, and Atiya Stokes-Brown, Associate Professor of Political Science and Diversity & Inclusion Faculty Fellow, delivered the opening remarks.

Throughout her lecture, Norwood distinguished between explicit and implicit biases.

“We dislike things and don’t even know why,” Norwood said.

People all have these implicit biases to some degree, she said. She clarified that this doesn’t mean everyone will act in an inappropriate or discriminatory manner, only that people are pre-dispositioned to accept certain information and reject other information. 

Norwood used many visual aids and scientific tools during her presentation to show the strength of associations people have to a “good” versus “bad” skin color. For example, she showed a video from a CNN research study where young children, regardless of their perspective race, tended to choose a picture of a white child and say that he/she was “good, smart, and liked” over the black child who was “bad, ugly, and dumb.”  

She classified this study as an example of white bias: that these children identify their skin tone with positive attributes and identify dark skin tone with negative attributes.

“Data shows that babies as young as six months can distinguish race and skin color,” Norwood said.  

Norwood made references to many examples of how these preferences for race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc. show up in our lives and tied these preferences back to specific examples of implicit bias in higher-learning environments, like at the University.

For example, she alluded to the campus whiteboard incident of earlier this semester in her remarks that “incidents of racism in higher learning still happen.”

Bias may be as discrete “as students evaluating professors differently based on who that person is,” Norwood said. 

Women, she said, are talked about in terms of their makeup or clothing. Men are not evaluated on such biases, however. 

“This shows that we are treating people differently,” Norwood said. 

Norwood did not spend much time discussing her own personal experiences with bias as a practicing attorney during her talk, but she did mention her recent appointment, on behalf of the American Bar Association (ABA), as a member of the ABA’s newly formed Commission on Diversity and Inclusion 360. She currently co-chairs The Joint Committee on Fighting Implicit Bias in the Justice System.

As a professor at Washington University School of Law, she focuses her research on black identity issues, colorism within the black community, and the intersection of race, class, and public education in America. 

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