Can We Change Racial Bias?

Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Ferguson. Baltimore. Charleston. In the wake of so many recent tragedies involving racial discrimination, Americans are taking a hard look at this systemic and divisive issue in our culture, and asking what can be done to change it.

Most of us like to think that a person who is sensitive to racial issues—who believes firmly that all races should be treated equally—is a person who is not under the sway of racism. In other words, someone who is against racism is (by definition) not racist.

Unfortunately, this often isn’t true. Our consciously held beliefs don’t always agree with our long-held mental and behavioral patterns. As a result of our country’s history, our society, culture, media, and power structures continuously feed us subtle (and not sometimes not so subtle) racist messages. From systematic discrimination within police and legal systems, to biased portrayal of Blacks in the media, to the tacit implication when someone avoids a Black person by crossing to the other side of the street, negative stereotypes of Black people are constantly being reinforced, even as many work to change them.

These messages, especially when repeated over time, create associations in our minds that instill prejudice without us even knowing it. This is the insidious “implicit bias” that exists in much of American culture. Just by operating in our society, we develop and reinforce concepts in our minds—and our brains—that automatically link the category of “Black” with “bad,” “dangerous,” or generally “less than,” even if we don’t believe these ideas consciously. Its nearly inescapable.

Re-writing policies and making other explicit societal changes in favor of racial equality is hugely important. But if we want to change the way race is perceived in our culture, we need to be aware of, and work to shift, our associations at this implicit level as well.

Probing Bias

Of course, if you ask someone whether they ascribe to racist beliefs, you can imagine their reply. Either they will be completely unaware of the implicit biases they hold, or they will be consciously biased but unlikely to admit it because of the social stigma against racism. In both cases, the person will probably claim not to be racially biased. Thus, this kind of explicit measurement just isn’t accurate.

Social psychologists have developed clever ways to “look under the hood” and probe unconscious systems. One of the tools scientists use to study this phenomenon is the implicit association test (IAT), which was designed to measure the strength of association between concepts in memory. In this computerized test, participants are asked to categorize two sets of stimuli as quickly as possible according to the instructions. To probe racial bias, one must assign Black or White faces into positive or negative categories.

An example of the IAT, where a participant would have to sort the face into the left or right category.

The idea is that if someone has an implicit bias against Blacks (e.g., they associate “Black” with “Bad”), he or she will take longer to press a button to assign Black faces into a positive category. The delay is a result of the brain being slightly slower to process this association, because it runs counter to the existing concept. Along the same lines, he or she would be faster to categorize White faces as positive, because this agrees with the existing concept in their mind.

Implicit racial bias is well-known in the research world, and it’s pervasive. Using the IAT, Harvard’s Project Implicit reported that 88 percent of White Americans hold implicit bias against Black people. Perhaps more disturbingly, 48 percent of Black people hold the same bias against their own race. Notably, these biases are not correlated with people’s explicit reports of their attitudes about race, suggesting the biases are operating without awareness.

But it’s not just beliefs that are biased. Even though these associations may be unconscious, they affect our decisions and behavior in the world. For example, research has shown that people with higher implicit positive bias toward Whites (measured through the IAT) make economic decisions that are more disadvantageous to Black people, deliver fewer treatments to Blacks seeking medical care, and have more negative social interactions with Blacks.

Evidence of racial bias is also reflected in our brains. An important early neuroimaging study scanned the brains of White Americans while they viewed unfamiliar Black vs. White faces. Researchers were specifically interested in the amygdala, a brain region associated with processing highly salient and/or threatening stimuli. They found not only that amygdala activity was higher for Black faces than for White faces, but the level of participants’ amygdala activation was correlated with their level of implicit bias against Black people. In other words, the more racially biased people were, the more their amygdala responded to Black faces. Importantly, brain activity was not correlated with explicit, self-reported measures of race attitudes. This and other studies finding similar results have been interpreted to mean that Black faces, (particularly males) are perceived by the brain as more threatening than White faces, reflecting culturally-learned associations.

It would seem, then, that despite someone holding a conscious belief in racial equality, significant factors are operating under the surface—neurally, psychologically, culturally—to sway his or her perception and behavior toward inequality.

Is there anything we can do to reduce these implicit racial biases?

Shifting Bias

Very little research has examined this question, in part due to an assumption that racial attitudes are instilled at a young age and are resistant to change. But as we learn more about the brain’s incredible potential for plasticity over the lifespan, researchers are beginning to re-think the idea of fixed traits. In fact, several recent studies in London and Barcelona used elegant methods to investigate whether implicit racial bias can be changed, and found intriguing results.

In these studies, the experimenters induced various kinds of “bodily illusions,” giving White participants the sense that their bodies had a dark skin color. When they tested these participants with the IAT, they found reduced racial bias after the illusion. In addition, the more believable their experience of the bodyswapping illusion, the more positive their implicit bias toward Black faces became. The authors suggest:

This feeling of being a different person or a member of a different group allows us to understand that “we are more alike… than we are unalike,“ as Maya Angelou famously wrote.

This exciting work suggests that by viewing ourselves as similar to others, we may be able to shift our deeply held biases.

Even more promising is that we may not need virtual technology and body-swapping illusions to elicit this effect.

Compassion Training

A major goal of Courage of Care’s Sustainable Compassion Training (SCT) is learning to move beyond our limited, reductive labels of others. These reductive labels are the fuel for our unconscious biases. By engaging in repeated practices meant to help us become more aware of the commonalities we all share and to develop care and compassion, might we also be combating implicit bias?

Recent research suggests this may be true. Two studies have used the IAT to measure bias before and after a lovingkindness meditation intervention. Lovingkindness practice (similar to SCT) involves generating warm, caring feelings toward a loved person (e.g., a family member or close friend), and then extending these positive thoughts first to themselves and then to a growing circle of others, eventually to all sentient beings.This practice is intended to reduce the distinction we usually make between loved ones, strangers, and disliked people in terms of their value to us, and whether they deserve our care and compassion.

In the first study, conducted at Yale University, volunteers were randomly assigned to one of three groups: practicing lovingkindness meditation in a 6-week class (practice group), discussing lovingkindness meditation in a 6-week class led by the same teacher but without practice (discussion group), and a waitlist control group of people who had signed up but were not yet attending a class.

Before and after the 6 weeks of classes or waitlist, participants took IATs intended to measure bias against two stigmatized groups: Black people and homeless people. At the end of 6 weeks, the study found that implicit bias against both Black people and homeless people was reduced (compared to baseline levels) for those participants who had been practicing lovingkindness. Those in the discussion group and on the waitlist did not change in terms of their implicit bias. Kang and her colleagues concluded that “lovingkindness meditation can improve automatically activated, implicit attitudes toward stigmatized social groups.” Importantly, the fact that the discussion group didn’t change suggests that merely learning, thinking about, and discussing ideas such as compassion and equality may not be enough to change deep-rooted biases.

The second study was done at the University of Sussex and examined the impact of a much shorter, yet more specific intervention. In this case, half the participants performed a 7-minute lovingkindness practice: listening to audio instructions, they spent 4 minutes generating and sending love to people who deeply cared for them, and the final 3 minutes directing those warm feelings toward a photograph of a Black person of the same gender as the participant. A control group performed a similarly structured task, spending 4 minutes imagining the physical characteristics of two acquaintances, followed by 3 minutes paying close attention to the physical characteristics of the same gender-matched Black person shown to the participants in the lovingkindness condition (but not generating any particular emotion).

At the end of this brief instruction, participants performed two racial IATs (probing bias against Black and Asian people), and completed a measure of positive emotions. Results showed that for the group who had practiced lovingkindness toward the Black person, implicit racial bias against Blacks got smaller. There was no change in bias toward Asian people, suggesting that the effects were specific to the racial group focused on during practice. In addition, further analysis showed that other-regarding positive emotions such as gratitude and love were a significant factor in the reduction of implicit bias. This work suggests two conclusions: 1) that a very short emotional induction can change implicit bias toward a targeted group, and 2) that generating other-focused positive emotions is important to make this shift.

These kinds of studies will need to be extended to determine the potential long-term effects of compassion meditation. For example, its still unknown whether a short-term intervention (of a few minutes or a few weeks) can change implicit bias in a lasting way. Given the decades of constant reinforcement of negative stereotypes, it could well be that when a person stops practicing, the old patterns will re-emerge. It will also be fascinating in future studies to see whether these changes are reflected on behavioral and neural levels.

If there is no transformation inside of us, all the structural change in the world will have no impact on our institutions. –Peter Block

While this research is still in its infancy, these studies point to an exciting possibility for change. As groups organize and work on societal and political levels to move toward racial equality, we should be encouraged and inspired to know that we can take individual responsibility for our own minds. By engaging repeatedly in mental and emotional practices that are meant to foster attitudes of equality and compassion, we can change the unconscious associations that drive our behavior. SCT is a program built precisely on this understanding.

The situation in our culture may seem dire, but the more we learn, the more we see that change is always possible. And it is only by changing ourselves that we change society. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, “We must become the change we wish to see in the world.”

Wendy Hasenkamp, Ph.D.

It’s Time To Put the “Martyr Teacher” Narrative To Rest


Recently a young woman I mentor came to me, teary-eyed and frustrated. Just months into the school year, she was exhausted, overworked and overwhelmed at her new school setting. Placed in what had been labeled a failing school, she had repeatedly asked an administrator for guidance and support and was told “to put her big girl pants on.”

This experience is all too common for new teachers. It certainly wasn’t a new story to me. Many times I have been saddened by the account of a promising young educator, energetic, intelligent and driven, who finds him or herself jaded and hopeless after carrying the weight of a system for just a few months.

The experiences are all linked by similar plagues: large classes of students well below grade level, stressed administrators too busy to provide adequate support, and rigid teacher evaluation tools threatening teachers’ jobs. And every time, this once-promising educator does one of two things: either gives up, feeling helpless within this large, impersonal system, or battens down the hatches and resolves to do whatever it takes to inspire and support that one bright student who, without this teacher, would have no one else. It is this second type of teacher that concerns me the most.

Problems with the “teacher as martyr” narrative
I have long been unnerved by the dominant cultural narratives surrounding our profession: teacher as martyr; teacher as slacker, only in it for the free summers; and the comparatively rare but equally insidious anti-union narrative of teacher as fat cat, collecting benefits and wasting valuable resources. All of these narratives present dangerous interpretations of the educator experience in the United States and undermine the profession.

One of the most insidious narratives is that of the teacher as martyr. This narrative is all too common in movies, in celebrations of great teachers, and in the very hallways of our schools. We are told, time and time again, that to be a good teacher, to have an impact, you must sacrifice pay, weekends with your family, and a healthy sense of work/life balance. Implicit in this cultural narrative is the belief that effective teachers must serve not only as educators, but also as counselors, nutritionists, nurses, and the list goes on.

We celebrate these martyr teachers, hail them as exemplars and grant them awards. What we don’t readily talk about or acknowledge is the epilogue to these stories. These very same caring educators are often too exhausted to attend to their own needs, and too burnt out to sustain this heralded selfless care.

It is time to shift this narrative

By supporting teachers in developing a sustainable system of compassion for themselves and their students we can foster a stable and solid position from which to effect change. Martyr teachers exist because our system is broken. They are celebrated because through these selfless acts of care, they meaningfully impact the lives of our children, often helping them overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But this impact comes at a cost and it is never enough.

What if we could transform the system? What if we could create educational communities in which members felt cared for, safe, and stable? What if these communities could, from this secure place, challenge the status quo and find the energy and momentum to transform the system into one that benefits and positively impacts the lives of all of those within it? What would happen if teachers joined the ranks of the great changers of our society?

As an educator, I too have fallen trap to the hero narrative. When I was first introduced to the practice of being compassionately present to my own feelings, I was at the height of my own hero narrative. It was the beginning of a school year and I was entering my second year at a new school. My first year at this institution had been challenging, and I had ended the year feeling deflated and inadequate. As I compared myself to my colleagues who sacrificed vacations, evenings, and weekends, I was overwhelmed by self-doubt.

The following September, when the building was aflutter with the palpable anticipation of new leadership and a sense of renewed commitment, I re-committed myself to work harder, and to sacrifice more. I said, “yes” to every opportunity presented to me, eager to prove that I was as devoted and serious an educator, as the celebrated veterans in our building.

One of those opportunities led me directly to this Sustainable Compassion framework. As I explored these practices, I became increasingly aware of a constant sense of urgency, and the way in which I ignored my own needs – dismissing persistent bodily signs of stress.

Exploring these practices with my colleagues, I was surprised and comforted to know I was not alone. Many of us, in our efforts to care for our students, had accepted the dominant cultural narrative of our institution, that to be effective teachers, we could not rest or attend to our needs. The act of being present to my own feelings helped me feel connected to my colleagues in a way that my efforts at work did not.

As the year progressed, I began to see the ways in which the institution encouraged and supported a culture of martyrdom. At a retirement party of a highly respected colleague, I was struck by her admittance that she could never find balance, in fact, that she was incapable of doing this and admired those who could. This saddened and worried me. I found myself wondering about the implicit message being sent to our pre-service teachers and even our students. Pregnant with my first child, I realized this was not a narrative I was willing to accept, nor celebrate. In learning to be present to my own feelings, I learned to recognize my own need for care, and to open up to receiving that care from myself and from others, which in turn taught me how to be a stable source of care for my students.

Towards a new, sustainable system

We need to find ways to provide teachers with the tools necessary to sustainably care for their students and themselves. Educators need space and time to nurture relationships with their students and colleagues, and to develop the compassionate stance from which they can wisely act. We need stop asking our teachers to sacrifice everything in order to save one student. Instead we need to celebrate, uplift and support all of our educators, and in so doing save many.

by chrissy colon bradt, ma

Sustainable Compassion for Those Who Serve

Forty- to fifty-percent of teachers quit their job within their first five years of teaching. Nurses, doctors and other medical professionals report increasingly less satisfaction in their work. Incidence of suicide among social workers is on the rise. Clergy suffer from depression and other medical issues.

Part of the problem is systemic—our social service providers are overworked and under-resourced. Yet another part of the problem is cultural, and stems from our beliefs about what compassion is and how we cultivate it.

Compassion is not a self-help technique

Many in social service are led to believe that exhaustion and burnout come with the job. Taking time for oneself can be seen as selfish. Requesting help from others can be interpreted as a sign of weakness.

Yet these assumptions are holding us back: being cared for is what empowers one’s ability to care for others. Without being open and vulnerable to receive care from another, our ability to care for others—including our children, families, patients, students, and so on—is built on a fragile foundation.

Overcoming these obstacles requires that we recognize and challenge some of our deeply held beliefs about care. Learning new way of conceptualizing and cultivating compassion can help us gain the confidence and tools to work with and overcome these blocks.

We live in a highly individualistic culture that tends to view compassion and other contemplative trainings simply as techniques through which a person remakes him or herself into a more kind and caring person.

Yet this frame places the burden of healing and transformation solely on the person’s shoulders, and misses the deep relational framework of many ancient wisdom and spiritual traditions from which many of our modern contemplative programs are drawn.

In these traditions, loving care and compassion are not understood to emerge simply through one’s own efforts; instead they are understood to emerge in relation to others. We learn to care for others in the same way that we have been seen, held and cared for.

In other words, we love in the way we have been loved; we care in the way we have been cared for.

Tapping into the relational dimension of loving care and compassion

We can replicate this kind of relational starting point for such practices in our current context, at least to some degree, but it needs to begin from within our own experience. We can begin to tap into this relational dimension of care and compassion first by recalling a moment of caring connection from any time in our lives—a moment of care and acceptance, in which someone was with you in a simple loving way, rooting for you, wishing you well, laughing with you, happy you exist in that moment.

This image of care may be a memory of someone from childhood whom you loved being with, or a moment of genuine connection from any part of your life—a warm smile, a welcoming gaze—with someone, such as a teacher, a friend, a mentor, or even a stranger.

We can relive that moment as if it were present right now, and by re-experiencing ourselves as seen and loved within it, beyond our familiar, self-critical or reductive thoughts of ourselves to whatever extent is possible right now.

Taking a few moments to recall such moments regularly can help us remember many other instances of care that have permeated our lives. With repetition, we can learn to accept the deep worth and potential in us that is the object of such unconditional care, empowering us to see others similarly in their deep worth and potential.

It is by returning repeatedly to these moments of unconditional care in which we are held and deeply seen that we can begin to extend care to others, not as an isolated self, but as someone grounded in care, who learns to extend the same care and compassion to others in a way that is not subject to empathy fatigue or burnout.

john makransky, Ph.d. & brooke d. lavelle, Ph.D.

A previous version of this post was published by Tricycle. *Learn more about our upcoming Sustainable Compassion Training Workshop March 12-13 in San Francisco, CA.

Fierce Care, Not Self-Righteous Anger, for Social Change

Many of us who serve others in caring professions or roles also work to change institutional or social structures that we see as harming the people we serve, or holding them back. To work to change such structures is often to work against the positions of other people who are committed to those structures. We are especially prone in such work to mistake our angry thoughts of those people for the persons, opposing the people, not just their positions or actions, with an aversion for them that we may mistake for righteousness. This is common among social activists, and can lead to growing hatred for people in the opposition.

Anger can certainly get us moving for social change, but if it becomes a dominant motivation, it can impede us. Anger is typically self-protective. When we are angry, our images of others are distorted, and this prevents us from staying in touch with their fuller human experience and potential. When we are immersed in self-righteous anger, we cannot listen deeply to others. Such anger, cultivated as a motivation for social change, tends to make us increasingly defensive and abrasive. With anger or hatred of our opponents as our motivation, we tend to drive people away from our cause instead of inspiring them toward it.

Wisdom in anger

But people who defend anger at injustice do so because they sense that such anger is not just deluded, that there is also some important wisdom in it. What is the wisdom in anger at injustice? Such anger knows that something is terribly wrong, something that needs to be decisively confronted in order to make things safe and well. If the wisdom in anger could be liberated from its distorted, limited perceptions of other persons as just evil, its intense energy could clarify into a fierce form of care that is ferocious in upholding everyone in their essential dignity by confronting the forces of greed, prejudice, and hatred that are wielding people.

To access this wisdom we need to be grounded in a caring level of our being that is not imprisoned in the reactions of a brittle, angry sense of self that has lost touch with the unconditional worth of everyone involved, including our so-called opponents. It is from that grounded, caring place place that we can compassionately confront others' harmful behaviors on behalf of them, not just against them.

Confrontation on behalf of others, not against them

As we familiarize with, and begin to stabilize in, the relational practices of Sustainable Compassion Training that help us learn to see and be seen by others more deeply, we can increasingly sense others in their depth as human beings of great dignity and potential. Then our vision of others cannot be reduced to caricatures of self-righteous anger.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized against social institutions of racism and economic inequality, his opponents attacked him and his companions with ferocious dogs and whips. Yet King taught that unconditional love is the key to social change. He taught that we must confront social structures of racism on behalf of everyone, including those supporting such structures. He never conceptualized his movement for positive change in society as only on behalf of oppressed people. It was also on behalf of those people wielding the attack dogs and whips.

This is the essential difference between ordinary anger and fierce care. Ordinary anger is motivated by fear and aversion; fierce care by a force of love that has the courage to confront people for their own sake. Anger seeks to protect the self, or one’s own self-righteousness. Fierce care seeks to uphold all others in their deepest potential by challenging whatever in them impedes that potential.

If we learn to stay in touch with everyone’s deep dignity, our work for change can become more sustainable for ourselves and more effective for others. Instead of getting increasingly enraged in the work, driving away supporters and leading ourselves to burnout, we can become more caring, grounded, and energized. In this way, we can harness a power of care which can attract support from others who share our desire to work for change in a deeply grounded and sane way.