Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Let's Talk About Implicit Bias

My sister has always been thin. I have always been... not thin.

You may not consciously acknowledge it, but when you see me you have subconscious thoughts about me -- my behaviors, my faults, my value. If we were to verbalize these subconscious and often unacknowledged thoughts, they might go something like this:

"She has no self-control."
"If she'd just eat less she wouldn't be so overweight."
"She should try exercising."
"She must be lazy."
"I bet all she eats is junk."
"She'd almost be pretty if she wasn't so big."
"She should take better care of herself."
"She must have low self esteem."

If we are really honest, these are the kinds of thoughts that many people have when seeing someone who is not thin.

Conversely, people generally have more positive thoughts about someone who is thin. We have been programmed to think this way. Our society values being thin and frowns upon being plus-size. Most of us have grown up being taught in subtle ways to assign attributes and values based on a person's weight or body shape. It is something that we do not even think about. It just comes naturally to us, like breathing.

At this point, some of you are tracking with me. You can identify as the person who is or has been the recipient of these biased ideas. You read through the quotes, nodding your head because you know this is what many people think when they see a person of a larger size and you know it is not right. Or, you recognize that you have had these, quite possibly, unconscious thoughts about other people.
Some of you read through the list of quotes above and were nodding your heads and thinking, "Yes! This is why she is overweight. Why don't overweight people realize what is causing it and why don't they take some responsibility for their own selves?" (Might I just add that "overweight" itself implies a standard and is purely subjective. Who decided what the maximum "good" weight should be and who decides when someone is over that weight?)

So now I am going to talk to you, the one who thinks I should take some responsibility. Everyone else can follow along as well.

My sister and I share genetics. We grew up in the same family, eating the same foods, living relatively the same lifestyle. We have comparable activity levels as we are both moms to young and active children. Lazy is not a word that we have in our vocabularies at this time. My (thin) sister eats a larger quantity of food than I do on many occasions. I eat only clean food, no junk. She eats healthy, too, but does not have to worry about eating whatever she wants because she will not gain weight no matter what she eats. I, on the other hand, seem to gain weight on fresh air and filtered water.

There is no logical reason that she should be thin and I should be plus-size. It must be something in our genetics that I happened to get the genes from our larger ancestors and she got the genes from our smaller ancestors. Or perhaps she was fortunate to get a good metabolism and I was not. I will never be thin and healthy at the same time. I was once thin in college, but I was not taking care of my body and I did not look healthy. Now, I am a larger size, but very healthy.

I know, I know. "You're just making excuses for being fat and lazy." OK, if you do not get it by now you probably will not get it. That is OK. I do not need you to get it. I am writing this for those who will understand.

Now, can we talk about "thin privilege"? Yes, it does exist. Those privileges that thin people enjoy that overweight people are excluded from enjoying. When you are thin, you can comfortably sit at a concert or other event in the chairs that are set up next to each other without worrying about crowding your neighbor. Airplane seats do not seem extraordinarily skinny. Car seatbelts do not push into your side. Your clothes do not cost as much. And while we are on clothes, thin people have designers making cute clothing for them. Apparently it is assumed that plus-size people have no sense of style and do not care what they wear. It is hard to find reasonably priced clothing in larger sizes that is not hideous. I know I have extra curves, but wearing a brightly and busily colored mu-mu-type shirt is not my idea of cute and stylish. If I want clothing that is cute and stylish, I am going to have to pay much higher prices for it.
I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Those people who are deemed "average" or "thin" are able to enjoy privileges that those of us who wear larger sizes do not enjoy.

And then you say, "Well, if you'd just lose weight you wouldn't have these problems." Oops. Your implicit bias is showing again. Go back and start reading at the beginning. 

I am not being judgmental. I do these same things. I have implicit bias against people of larger size. I have been programmed by the same society to believe the same things, even though I myself am a person of larger size. I have internalized the messages even though I know they are not true. I have to actively work to remove them from my thinking and transform the way I think about people who are plus-size. I have to replace the false biases with truth and empathy and compassion. Because society is constantly feeding me lies about people, I need to constantly be guarding my thoughts and actively changing them. I need to acknowledge the subconscious thoughts I have so that I can reprogram my thinking.

We all have implicit biases and many of us have privileges in various areas of life -- religion, race, weight, gender, sexual orientation, age, body art (tattoos, piercings, hair colors), etc. We see someone and make instant judgments and valuations based on what we believe to be true about people with those characteristics. Many times these subconscious thoughts are based on our perceptions or on what society has taught us and not on truth.

We then interact with, or not, people based on our implicit bias. We treat people in different ways based on our implicit bias. We make comments, assumptions, decisions, and judgments based on our implicit bias.

Are you curious how biased you may be?
I was. So I went to the Project Implicit website. There you can choose from various tests, each referred to as a different Implicit Association Test (IAT). These tests, which take about 10 minutes each, will give you instant feedback about your implicit bias.

Not to worry! If you find that you have strong unwanted biases, there are things you can do to transform your thinking. Acknowledging the implicit bias is the first step.

Make sure to check out the FAQs at Project Implicit. There are also many other resources online for education about implicit bias. A search online will bring up many links to further educate yourself.

Once we recognize our implicit bias and privileges, we can begin the work of transforming our thinking and advocating for the rights of marginalized people.

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