Martin Luther King Jr’s Call to Action Today: Unlearning Implicit Bias 

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

“What is Martin Luther King Jr. saying to me?” I ask myself each January and the answer that returns is always fresh and significant. Though the need for valuing, seeking and embracing diversity is urgent and pressing in our homes, our schools and our workplaces, where do I turn my attention? How can I make a difference?

In our roles as parents and or as educators, are we doing all that we can to raise a generation of includers, of strength-finders, and of caring-in-diversity relationship seekers? In fact, it’s important for us to realize that children, even infants, begin learning bias in their earliest years. Where do they get these messages of bias? Directly from us.  

Implicit bias can be difficult to admit or even understand since it creates a paradox in our thinking, speech, and actions. Though we may believe that all individuals – genders, cultures, ethnicities, LGBTQ – are capable of doing a particular job, for example, we may harbor schemas, or abstract layers of knowledge from many years of limiting messages from others, that conflict with that belief and produce opposing stereotypes. Though we may not articulate a directly offensive view to a woman getting that job, for example, our attitude or tone used when discussing the woman might represent our underlying schema beliefs that, whether we desire or not, “teach” our child biased values. If, for example, we encounter a new person of another culture and approach cautiously prioritizing our safety when we would not do that with a new person of our own culture, then it sends a clear message to our young child. 

Just as all people cannot be fully self-aware since we all have blind spots being too close to our own skin, so too all have developed implicit bias over a lifetime of messages that create power-over dynamics where there are differences. Research has uncovered a number of ways in which we can unlearn our implicit biases. I’m hearing Martin Luther King Jr. tell me this is work I must do. In fact, it’s a responsibility each of us must undertake as contributing citizens, if we are to raise confident kids and become the confident parents we want to be.

Since modeling is predominantly how our children learn implicit bias – watching and listening to you – let’s focus on how we can change ourselves first. Using the CASEL social and emotional competence framework of the five core skills we need to build in ourselves and our kids, here are some research-based strategies for unlearning our own implicit bias.

Conduct a safety self-test to raise self-awareness. 

Because we are caring, educated individuals, because we may view ourselves as change-makers or global citizens, it’s uncomfortable (at best) to admit that we have implicit bias. However, instead of allowing guilt and shame from stopping us do the work we need to do, it’s critical to admit that we all have it by the very nature of living in a culture with a diverse range of others. So help raise your own self-awareness as a very first step. Conduct an audit of your own thoughts and feelings. Pick a week (this one seems one in which you might be more motivated inspired by the words and actions of Martin Luther King Jr.). Each time you go to a coffee house, restaurant or bank, notice how you interact with others. Who do you say hi to? Who do you feel safe with? What is the color of their skin? Intentionally say “hi” or act kindly to others who look different from you and check your feelings. Safe, unsafe? This will raise your awareness that there’s work to be done.

Become intentional about changing your thinking habits to increase self-management. 

Now choose the following two weeks (since it takes at least two weeks to create new thinking habits) to create new ways of thinking when you are interacting in your community. As you go about your day and encounter others, intentionally seek out those who felt “unsafe” to you when you conducted your audit. In the quick moment of interaction, utter in your mind, “safe,” to begin to turn around your perception. As you walk away, ask yourself, “what’s their back story?” Imagine the most empathetic, compassionate back story of pain, struggle, endurance, courage and kindness as you consider their story. Cultivate a character in your mind who is endearing and beloved as you watch his life movie.

Seek interaction with other races, cultures, genders, or same sex partners to cultivate social awareness and create relationships.

Numerous research studies have demonstrated that as individuals get to know a person who differs from them, their biases are shattered and they feel greater compassion for the “other.” Increased interaction helps us view people as individuals rather than as part of a larger culture. So on daily errands, become intentional about creating small talk with those from other races, cultures, or LGBTQ. How can you generate conversation, get to know something about that individual, and help shatter your own implicit bias? Consider the multiplying effect of doing this with your child by your side. Your child will not only experience your modeling but also, learn with you about another individual in their community with whom they would not normally interact.

Participate in service as family to activate your responsible decision-making skills. 

“Everybody can be great because anybody can serve,” is another favorite quote from Martin Luther King Jr. Each time you sign up to serve your own or another community, you have a chance to dispel implicit bias. Whether it’s serving dinner to a homeless population or bringing supplies to shut-in seniors, you’ll have the opportunity to interact with individuals you may never encounter in your daily routine while showing care for them. Include your family and all will have the chance to enact kindness and come away feeling nourished and cared about from those you’ve served as is always the experience with genuine service.

May we not become complacent or point the blame at others for the lack of understanding and acceptance of some humans. As parents and educators, we are called to address implicit bias as a core responsibility of raising the next generation. How can we become inspired by the model of Martin Luther King Jr. to take action in our lives to change the world one person at a time?


Want to take the learning further?

Check out the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning’s Equity Brief entitled: Equity and Social and Emotional Learning; A Cultural Analysis

2 Comments on “Martin Luther King Jr’s Call to Action Today: Unlearning Implicit Bias ”

  1. Wonderful post! We all have a lot of work to do on ourselves first. The media, everything we’ve learned from our own parents, coupled with our own experiences can really shape biased ideas that are detrimental to our own growth. As a pastor, Dr. King understood the importance of rooting out prejudiced ideas. Acts 10:34 mentions that Apostle Peter had to do some work and said, “Now I truly understand that God is not partial, but in every nation the man who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” We have to do the work to follow Jehovah’s example and adopt the same mindset.

    • Heather Jo, I couldn’t agree more. And it’s so true that we see messages through the media that get into our heads without our conscious realization. So we do all have work to do in ensuring that we deal with those undiscovered biases in ourselves that may hold us back from learning from those who are different from us. Thanks so much for your wise insights! Best, Jennifer

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