The psychological impact of hidden bias

By Gus Bode

On Nov. 4 and Jan. 20 Barack Obama was elected to and assumed the role of President. These were historic days and significant markers in race relations in the United States. As a result, people across the nation and the world were flooded with emotions. For many, witnessing a person of color be elected to the highest office in our county is an event they thought they would not see in their lifetime. But reaching this turning point does not mean racism has been eradicated.

These moments, reflected on during Black History Month, call us to assess our place in the ongoing struggle for equality. The tricky part about evaluating our role is that we may not be fully aware of the ways in which we perpetuate bias and discrimination.

As research has shown, racist acts are often not conscious or intentional, and well-intentioned people may, on an unconscious level, perpetuate harmful stereotypes.’ For example, the well-intentioned comment, ‘Each time I hear our new president speak, I’m amazed at how articulate he is’ may be intended to be heard as a compliment to President Obama; yet it belies a bias that African-Americans are not expected to be intelligent.


This line of reasoning is highlighted by noted multicultural psychologist Derald Wing Sue who states that although such comments may be deemed ‘small, banal and trivial, we’re beginning to find that they assail the mental health of recipients.’ Most damaging, Sue said, is that comments such as these feel invisible. Despite the recipient feeling insulted, there is uncertainty as to why, and the person making the comment may be oblivious that what has been said may be offensive. Thus, such incidents feel disorienting.’ ‘ ‘

So where do we go from here? As President Obama stated in his landmark speech, ‘A More Perfect Union,’ ‘Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. … If we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, education or the need to find good jobs for every American.’

Although talking openly and honestly about biases and stereotypes can be an anxiety-provoking experience, silence and inaction can be more detrimental to our emotional and psychological health. Dialogues about race can take place at many levels – between two individuals, in resident halls, classrooms, on blogs and Web sites. These are viable avenues for raising questions and concerns about the subtle, ill-defined ways prejudice and discrimination are experienced and perpetuated.

Enrolling in an ethnic studies course or attending an unfamiliar cultural event are everyday ways we may broaden and deepen understanding of ourselves and others. Finally, as President Obama so poignantly said, ‘In the end, then, what is called for is nothing more, and nothing less, than what all the world’s great religions demand – that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us … let us find that common stake we all have in one another.”

Ramirez is a professional psychology intern at the SIUC Counseling Center.