Implicit bias may seem like a loaded concept. It shows up often in conversations regarding equity and inclusion in schools, the workplace, and other community arenas. The weight of the words make people nervous. But what does the term mean, and how do we recognize implicit bias when it shows up in our own lives?
Sim Covington recently sat down with FingerLakes1.com’s Ted Baker to discuss what implicit bias means, how to recognize it, and what we as a community can do to combat it.
“Let me start here. Everyone has implicit bias- to repeat- everyone has implicit bias,” said Covington.
That’s something he’s learned in his nearly 20-year long career in higher education. A self-identified “professional student,” Covington is a six-time graduate of the State University of New York (SUNY) system and holds a doctorate degree from Northeastern University in Boston. His current role is as Chief Diversity Officer at Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) and he was recently elected as the first-ever African-American man on the Canandaigua City Council.
Covington said one of the main hurdles he encounters in conversations around diversity is that “people get triggered.” The conversation makes them uncomfortable, and that feeling usually has to do with their own implicit bias.
So what is implicit bias?
“[They are] unconscious biases that we all have that play [themselves] out when things come up for us and when we interact with others. So it may be the snap judgment that comes to mind, the stereotypes that pop up,” said Covington.
That’s the key- we might not even know we have a bias because it’s so deeply ingrained in our mind. Oftentimes, we take our bias as fact without a second thought. The term has a negative connotation, but biases can be positive or negative.
“If we’re thinking about things that would fall into a positive context, [it’s] been shown the more attractive a person is, meaning physically attractive, people may automatically assume that they’re a good person,” said Covington. “And that’s not necessarily true. You cannot tell somebody’s character by their physical appearance.”
This means that even if we assume something positive about another person, we’re still letting our judgments cloud reason.
Covington, originally from Brooklyn, says his experience living in Canandaigua has been very positive, but implicit bias still shows up, and not in the ways you might expect.
“I’m also a Rotarian. If you go to the Canandaigua Rotary Club…it’s not very diverse, but let me make this crystal clear: From day one, when I stepped into the door, it’s been nothing but hospitable,” explains Covington. “And it’s important to make that known, right, because people- going back to implicit bias- always operating off assumptions, assume that it’s going to be negative. And they don’t even know that yet, right?”
So, now that we have a better understanding of what implicit bias is and how it shows up, how do we as a community move past out biases and work towards making our organizations and institutions more diverse and equitable?
For institutions looking to be more intentional about bringing in diversity, Covington highlights the need for recruitment and adjusting workplace climate to take place simultaneously.
“I would encourage people to start with their ‘why?’- Why is it important to our club? Why is it important for our region? Research shows that diversity brings in a high level of creativity, ” said Covington.
He says one way we can bridge divides is by seeking out strategic community partnerships.
“Intentionally partnering with diversity-based organizations, letting them know what your charge is to bring in more diversity, have that conversation that brings them to the table to say, ‘Hey listen, we would to partner with you to come up with ways to make that happen at the highest level,'” Covington explains.
You can listen to the rest of Ted Baker’s interview with Sim Covington, FLCC’s Chief Diversity Officer and Canandaigua City Councilman, here.