Reflections on Implicit Bias Training

October 2, 2021

In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the widespread BLM protests, the leadership of my Christian congregation considered various programs that would both boost the awareness of the persistent systemic racism throughout the United States, and ideally, motivate members to engage locally in activities that address social injustices, especially racism. The church accepted a member’s suggestion to engage for a modest fee an African-American guide who has extensive experience in leading cross-cultural Implicit Bias Training (IBT) courses in corporate and institutional settings. The guide established objectives and a syllabus, and programmed a series of six three hour zoom sessions (weekday evenings, 7-10 PM) spread out over a few months in Spring 2021, and an additional three hour session in Fall 2021.

            For whites, Layla Saad “Me and White Supremacy” (MAWS).
            For BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color),
R. Menakem “My Grandmother’s Hands” (MGH).
I read both books to better grasp the framework of this IBT program.
The guide’s website has a remarkably rich set of resources on racism, including IBT.

Between sessions, we were asked to journal our thoughts and experiences, self-examine as guided by the books, and exercise prayerful forgiveness of the sources of our racism and feelings of white supremacy, namely, our parents, earlier ancestors, those who educated us, and who informed us.

            I was among a couple dozen people from our church, and other churches that interact with our parish, who volunteered to participate. Several clergy were part of the group. About a third of the participants identified as BIPOC or mixed race, but the majority were white of various Western cultural heritages. About two thirds of us attended the entire 18 hour core. The church leadership, for their June meeting, asked me to prepare this summary of my experience with the course.

            As the course unfolded, and thanks to numerous breakout group sessions, I appreciated the rich variety of reactions and experiences among us. I had not been faithful with all the additional activities that the guide requested, such as journaling, spending thorough time with the questions/exercises at the ends of the chapters in the readings, or taking time with the resources and activities on the web site of the course. Therefore, in good faith, for the report, I sought the input of others. After the 18 hours, eight people responded to my request to set up individual Zooms to give anonymous views. (See Annex 1 for details.) These conversations were lengthy and candid. I noted their comments, and learned opinions distant from my own, and novel insights to include in the report for our leadership.

Summary/Conclusions for the church leadership

            This report synthesizes my views with those of eight people who also completed the 18 hour core of the IBT course. We share a recognition of our duty in our Christian framework to discover any serious and widespread problems particular to our congregations, come up with local actions to address these, and to identify novel opportunities to boost the feelings of shared community for all congregants, and for those who may come our way. We appreciate the value of activities that augment our daily awareness and sensitivity to problems due to racism and exclusion of “out-groups”, either rooted in personal biases and attitudes, or due to historic and current systemic or institutional policies. In this sense, the 18 hours of course time, plus associated activities, achieved an announced meta-goal of IBT: “foundation for beginning this transformation” [of white racism]. None of the 9 people regretted having invested in IBT, as the time spent with these issues means that we have become more sensitive when we encounter individual and systemic exclusion. We expressed intentions to step in, both when confronted with such exclusion, and to work within our communities to proactively develop ways to promote inclusion. Nonetheless, we identified some shortcomings of the IBT program, and some of us are concerned about a possible mismatch between the scope of needs and aims in our parishes versus the overall content and approach of the type of course that this IBT program represents.

            What would we recommend for fellow parishioners who are able and willing to invest time toward boosting these behaviors and actions?

1. Implement suggestions for action that were generated by the IBT program? Yes

2. Repeat the IBT course for others, as it was presented?  No

3. Work with the IBT guide or other leaders to adapt the IBT-type goals and resources to work up a course specific for our congregation? Uncertain

4. Provide programs that were developed elsewhere and have been followed in other churches? To be considered

5. Explore other formats to continue ongoing discussion of these issues and actions?  Yes

IBT content

An Overview/Syllabus document was sent to us by the guide before the course began.

            This IBT program, including its focus on “racial healing,” falls into the general category of “diversity training,” programs that have been widely implemented in many organizations, typically to address some series of incidents of racial discrimination.

            Sessions included the guide’s presentation of key concepts and relevant sources with brief sets of breakout groups to exchange on various topics. She accented non-verbal body work designed to relax the tension that would build in us when exposed to various content in IBT, and more importantly to heal our inherent intergenerational trauma rooted in the racist actions of previous white generations or in the horrors experienced by the ancestors of black, indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), and of course, trauma due to ongoing experiences of both whites and BIPOC. Through various exercises we were encouraged to become aware of the trauma within all of us, and to engage various body movements toward healing. It was expected that confrontation with accounts of the terrible history of slavery, our embedded white supremacy and our benefits from white privilege, would lead to distress and tension. For each session “Guardians” were appointed who occasionally led relaxation or body-centered exercises to release the tension, which would help us on our path to “racial healing.”

Evaluation of content:

      Three important notes:

            – Many comments in this section reflect my personal reading and thinking on these issues, independently of the views the eight other Zoom-respondents.
            – Much of the critique here is about IBT in general, and so these comments are not pointed at the guide and should not be taken that way.
            – It may be that, simply by presenting such critique, I become open to appearing guilty of some of the covert racist thinking and behaviors as detailed, for example, in the book MAWS. So it goes. I will take my lumps. Some respondents expressed frustration with the content of this book, with its presumed knowledge of our uniformly held personal attitudes and emotions. Several felt that from the author’s perspective, we could do little that would be judged as genuinely righteous and honest.
And see a July 2021 New Yorker article that discusses the presumed persistent impossibility for whites to overcome racism.  

            The guide mentioned the evolution of IBT, notably until about five years ago, such courses were limited to teaching “racial literacy.” (See Annex 2.) In recent years some IBT courses have begun to offer “racial healing”, including somatic psychological approaches. We applaud the guide’s engagement with this evolution, recognizing that IBT continues in its development toward effective and actionable results.

            Underlying contradiction:

            A seeming contradiction in the premise of the course: The great task is to repair injustices, for example, as delineated by Reverend William Barber in a Vox article and in a commencement address. Rev. Barber presented similar themes in his homily at President Biden’s 2020 inauguration.

            Some of these injustices mainly affect BIPOC, and others affect, regardless of race or ethnicity, all the poor, and the victims of 1990’s WTO policies. Yet the focus of the 18 hour investment of the course was inward looking, on the cryptic, covert vestiges of racism that may remain unconsciously within our souls.

            Important: This perceived contradiction concerns the general approach of IBT, and thus is not explicitly directed at the 2021 course. It seems likely that most members of our church congregation are not afflicted with racist attitudes, at least not any that greatly matter in our context. There may well be habits leading to microaggressions felt by BIPOC, and severe enough to cause chronic discomfort. Certainly, we know from discussions within the parish that the experience of BIPOC in our church differs from  that of the typical white members, sometimes in ways of which the rest of us may be wholly unaware. All must remain alert and act toward ridding bad habits. Our outreach activities seek to improve the plight of the less privileged, and parishioners can continue to learn about institutional policies that further disadvantage those who are already struggling, as well as about behaviors that may unintentionally give offense or create a sense of exclusion. The IBT course content and especially the resources on its website did address societal problems.

For ideas toward alternate approaches for appropriate course material, see Annex 3.

Additional resources:
– Discussion of this contradiction and other features of IBT
IBT commentary including critique of a method of detection of implicit bias
Critique of White Fragility (WF), a popular book with themes similar to those in MAWS
NYT profile of author of WF
NY Mag. commentary on WF
Further comments on WF

Self-assessment of racist attitudes using a ladder metaphor

In early sessions, we were asked to position ourselves on metaphorical ladders depicting spectra of racist attitudes, where climbing to the top rung would make us bona fide anti-racists, even satisfying the demanding criteria of I. X. Kendi in his book “How to Be an Antiracist”.  Kendi argues that the historical developments of racist policies precede racist ideologies.

In a resource the guide provided, Dismantling Racism, dRworks, the lowest rung is “I’m normal,” “the innocence/ignorance stage,” for a person who is seemingly unaware of the systemic problems, yet, importantly, does not hold overtly racist views. In contrast, in the discussion of the degrees of feelings of white supremacy, MAWS, pp 44-45, quotes an overtly genocidal white supremacist as the “most extreme manifestation of white supremacist ideology,” and then places the participants in the IBT course in the same basket: “….lighter versions of this ideology ….. exist at more unconscious levels for progressive, we-are-all-one-race, peace-loving white people.” The guide presented the ladder of dRworks, but with an important distinction, namely, below the rung “I’m normal,” she added an overtly supremacist rung labeled: “White is civilized, Others are not. Nonwhites are defective or childish, not equal.” Although not as ugly as the extreme in MAWS, once again, the IBT participants, who accepted the challenge to discover their presumed covert racism, were placed in the same arena as those with overt racism. Most of the respondents felt that they were already well beyond any overt racial biases, and placed themselves toward the top of the ladders..

            A potentially misleading aspect of the ladders has functional consequences. Ladder images with equally spaced rungs give the impression that advancing from rung 2 of ignorant white privilege to rung 3, or from 5 to 6 or from 8 to 9 all have equal value. Yet, it is likely that progressives who are already at the top rungs of the ladder, and above some threshold of awareness of racism, will practice anti-racism and even engage in proactive efforts against injustices. Programs to guide them to discover, even perhaps successfully, lingering nuanced racist attitudes are unlikely to enhance their already established convictions in any meaningful way. Their time might be better devoted to pragmatic work against injustices. For folks on the bottom rungs, although advances away from the most blatant racism are clearly desirable, it is unlikely that moving between these rungs will motivate them toward any meaningful antiracist practices. Those in the middle rungs may be the best candidates for IBT training, with the greatest “bang for buck.” An example would be youth in communities permeated with racist ideation, but who are not yet embedded in a local racist brotherhood. See the graphic illustrating this non-linear relationship between individual progress toward anti-racism that matters and the position on a ladder.

Absence of narratives and appropriate role models with success stories

The guide most reasonably urged us to identify and display in our churches images depicting Jesus, Mary and disciples as black or at least as non-Caucasian. Such perspective both could remind white parishioners to practice inclusionary policies, and motivates BIPOC to feel more connected in the parish. Such “homophily” promotes classroom success of some black students when the teacher is black, and in some therapeutic contexts, improves compliance by black patients who are treated by black doctors.

In the same manner, this IBT group could have benefitted from stories of people like us whose investment with IBT led to changed outlooks and behavior. MAWS described a few individuals, but only to report how these examples displayed various racist attitudes. In all fairness, such cases may be very rare, as indicated in the above discussion of the people at the highest rungs of the ladder. In contrast, it’s easier to find cases, sadly too infrequently, of individuals who experienced dramatic and often rapid jumps from the lowest to the highest rungs. The “conversions” of Derek Black and white nationalists influenced by Daryl Davis are great examples. However, our IBT group did not accent presentation of folks with life trajectories similar to any of us and who changed in ways that matter via the IBT course. Nonetheless, a minority of respondents did report personal experience of positive change.

Objectives: clarity and pertinence to our needs/expectations, and extent achieved

These comments are based on the “Objectives” as presented by the guide, in a document of Objectives and Syllabus. Overall, the stated objectives were insufficiently specific, and some phrasing presented a list of buzzwords. Perhaps this lack of syllabus-like clarity is consistent with the emphasis on the expected fruits of nonverbal work with the objective of healing. This approach predominated in the first four sessions, as was announced in the syllabus.

– Overall comments from the nine: an inconsistent lack of clarity during the sessions about the objectives for the session, and often confusion about what was intended to occur in breakout groups.

– It is unfortunate that the guide did not initially consult with the participants about crafting objectives to meet our needs in the context of our church communities.

– Compounding this was an impression that whites were viewed as a homogeneous group, ignoring a wide diversity of relevant backgrounds and experiences, typical of our congregations. “Credentialing,” expression of previous positive interactions, friends, school, work, organizations, etc. with BIPOC would be interpreted in MAWS terms as “optical allyship”, by definition, something false.

Achievement of objectives?

It is certainly worthwhile that we examine ourselves, abandon for a time our assuredness about our beliefs, our supposed virtues, and our firmly held opinions on many matters. The IBT course constantly promoted such self-examination. Integrating this practice as a habit is more important than whether or not during the course we discovered imperfections in our beliefs, attitudes or practices. If we do encounter a situation where racism is at work, it is likely that we will be more prepared to speak or act to counter the racism. Such a mindset will also help when trying to convince others of flaws in their beliefs, and most importantly, when we enter a dialogue with others whose minds might be opened to change.

            That said, participants expressed a number of concerns about how and to what extent the course delivered on its central aims:

— Revelations of personal cryptic racism. As presented in MGH, and echoed by the guide, all whites are born with a chronic trauma due to ancestral racism, and for some, this is compounded by a racist upbringing. While cultural transmission is universally recognized, the notion of biological transmission of trauma over many generations is not credible, as discussed in the sections Methods and Annex 4.  Among our group, there were mixed views about the success of self-discovery of covert racism. Some recognized biases they had ignored. Overall, many remain in the camp of “white exceptionalism,” meaning a continuing view that what unfolded in the course does not apply to them in a manner that matters in important ways. Typically, this was simply because through various life experiences, many had already achieved an acceptable purging of personal racism. This suggests that the scope of the course was mismatched with our previous experiences that had raised our states of awareness and improved behavior in situations where racism may be in play.

— Actions to implement in our parishes: some good specific things, not all targeted directly at racism (for example, a method to create new social connections within a parish), and which would benefit those who feel some level of exclusion. Overall, however, the result was a thin set of expressed intentions, and these were not well fleshed out. Perhaps the supplementary final session in the Fall could reveal a wider set of actions.

— Because church services with welcoming congregations may serve as safe and comforting places for some BIPOC, some respondents were concerned that singling them out in any manner may remind them of a separateness, which they might feel or that could be provoked.

Personal objectives.

– A few people said that they would have welcomed integration of theology into the course.

– Triggering of emotional responses. Although most did not experience the expected emotions, a minority was disappointed that provocation of intense emotional responses did not occur.

– A frequently expressed motivation to join the course was simply to continue to learn the history of oppression. Some said they were disappointed that there was very little in the sessions on historical episodes. In all fairness, this aspect was not emphasized in the course objectives.

Critique of method to achieve goals

The main purposes of this report are to raise questions about the suitability of this IBT program for our communities, and discuss its foundational premises, which are centered on aims to reveal covert racism and then effect healing of the traumatic stress engendered by the racist attitudes. A secondary, much less important topic, concerns the methods for healing and their underlying justifications. My understanding of clinically accepted treatments for trauma is no deeper than a few things gleaned from the types of sources I consult for reliable discussions of scientific and medical issues. Some comments and links are in the section on Methods, and will no doubt appear naive to experienced practitioners. A brief summary: It was clear that a primary approach of the guide paralleled that of MGH, yet it was not apparent that this strategy, along with the blanket justification for its need, are well-founded (and see Annex 4).

Logistics and other issues

(Unless noted otherwise, comments reflect the majority of the nine whose comments are represented.)

– Three hour sessions on a weekday evening were felt to be too long.

– Some had wished for more time in the first sessions to get to know each other. Apparently self-description on the IBT website was intended for this, but breakouts would be better.

– Breakout groups: as noted above, participants were often uncertain about what to do, and the breakouts were too brief to develop meaningful back and forth dialogue, leaving no time to respond to statements of others.

– Several echoed a similar frustration immediately after breakouts when we expected some detailed discussion from the feedback of each breakout group. The guide invited a few comments, but she often did not respond, which a minority interpreted as a lack of expected empathy.

– Composition of groups and guides. A minority speculated that such a course, when focused on addressing a white audience, might be better led (or co-led) by a white person, one who had experienced the expected trajectory of the course, with revelation of biases, trauma, healing. This would be consistent with the recognized utility of “homophily”, the similarity bias. While in many contexts prejudicial, it might be preferable in some educational and medical contexts. See an article by experienced guides arguing that white guides may be best for white groups.

There were a variety of views, ranging from asking if such a course on white racism should include any BIPOC participants, to a suggestion that the course should have about half BIPOC and half white. Another suggestion: design a course for community leaders who are well advanced in their anti-racist understanding.

– Representations of Jesus as black: About half: too much time spent on this theme.

– Exercises for relaxation: Nearly all appreciated this, if nothing else as providing a break during the lengthy sessions and the pleasure of relaxing in synchrony with others. However, most did not consider that the relaxation was necessary for the purpose of responding to induced stressful responses, as such responses typically were not experienced.

– Guide’s website – Overall praise for extensive content where much could be learned. A minority gave great praise: a highly valuable component, even beyond the course itself.

– Healing strategies. A minority accepted these at face value without any question.

– Forgiveness exercises. Many “translated” forgive to “understand” as they see ancestors’ views as products of their times. A minority translated this to forgiving the ideas and attitudes as entities. Some appreciated the value of forgiving to “let go.”

– Use of books:  Most read all or most of MAWS or MGH, and many did at least some of the exercises. A few of us read both books. Some were disappointed that the books were never mentioned in the sessions nor chosen as a breakout topic.

– Role playing: Many were disappointed. There was only one exercise with no time to swap roles.

Final comments: key strengths of IBT, and a constant self-undermining risk

The people in this IBT course are all on the side of the guide, desiring to be her teammate in addressing social injustices. Despite this, her professional role was to root out imperfections in potential teammates that would hinder them from becoming top-notch anti-racists. Her efforts and successes in such revelations validate her identity, her roles, and contributions. However, course participants who feel that they are already on her side may feel resentment of such implicit criticism, potentially reducing her effectiveness as a teacher.

            (See Annex 5 for the background of these comments.)

            However, this risk is relatively trivial compared to the huge benefit of the time we spent with issues of racism. As noted in the introductory Summary, none of the nine regretted the time and energy invested in the course.

The central questions of this report:

Is this IBT course, or a variant a good choice for those congregants who are now prepared to join actions against injustices or to alleviate suffering? 
       No, these goals were peripheral to the course content. 

Is this IBT course is a good match for those who wish to develop practices of self-examination, and possibly of healing, as part of their quest toward joining actions against injustices?
       No, the foundational premises, for example, regarding inherited trauma are not well supported, and the particular techniques presented seemed inappropriate. The central view of participants was that the spirit of the members of our congregations is already at a level of readiness to contribute to fighting social injustices.

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