Using the Implicit Association Test Race Task in a Teacher Preparation Course

Author: Calli Lewis Chiu, Ph.D.
Affiliation: Assistant Professor, California State University, Fullerton
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As a faculty member in an education specialist credential program at CSU Fullerton, I spend a great deal of time ensuring that I produce educators who utilize culturally responsive academic instruction and classroom management strategies. If you are unfamiliar with special education, you may not know that students of color are vastly overrepresented in this area. One example is the significant overrepresentation of black boys identified as having emotional/behavioral disorders. As someone with inherent privilege through no doing of my own (white, middle class), I carry the onus of producing teachers who have the desire, knowledge, and skills to push against this decades-long reality. One activity that I have found is particularly effective at helping my students to reflect on their own unconscious racial biases is the Implicit Association Test Race Task. As there is often a mismatch between the demographics of teachers and their students, this activity can be powerful for use in any teacher preparation course.

In this online activity, users are instructed use the keyboard to associate European American faces and African American faces with positive and negative words. Response times are used to report whether the user has a preference toward either race. There are other tests related to different constructs (e.g. religion, disability, sexuality), but I will only be discussing the race test here.

I have used this activity in two different ways. I have had the teacher candidates complete the activity in class, and I have also assigned it as an activity to be completed outside of class. When assigned an in-class assignment, students complete the activity in a computer lab, and then I lead a class discussion related to the activity and the students’ results. Due to the sensitive nature of this activity, when completed as an in-class activity, I do not ask the students to share their results with the group. When assigned online, I ask the students to report their results (I am the only one who sees them) and to provide a written reflection on their results and on the activity itself. When completed online, I respond to each student’s reflection individually.

Often, students’ results will show that they have at least a slight preference for European Americans over African Americans. My response to this is that it is okay — we are human, and it is natural for us to have biases! It is what we do with those biases once we become aware of them that is important. Students whose results show as them having a slight preference for European Americans over African Americans responses tend to fall into one of three categories. Below each category is an excerpt from a student’s response. (Note: some edits have been made to ensure anonymity and to increase clarity.)

  • Category 1: I am not racist - I am colorblind!

I was shocked by my results! I did not think that I would have a preference over a child's ethnicity. That is probably the typical answer anyone would give, but when interacting with a child, I do not consider their ethnicity when deciding how to interact with them. I take the child for who they are. I would like more information about this activity to see why my results ended up the way they did.

  • Category 2: I am not racist - The test is faulty and not valid!

I believe that the test is flawed because the user is having to make choices with both hands, and most people have a dominant hand that is faster than the other. I think a person's results would be different depending on whether the person is right- handed or left-handed. The test tells you to go as fast as you can, and some people might have a slower response with their non-dominant hand.

This last category is much less common, but it gives me hope when I read this category of response:

  • Category 3: Wow — that activity really has me thinking!

The following came from a student who scored as having no preference toward European Americans or African Americans, but the activity was so powerful for her, she reflected on the concept of bias quite a bit:

I will confess however, that I realized I have a bit of a bias myself. I didn’t realize it until my husband pointed it out. I was born, raised and have lived in Delano my entire life. He was born in Mexicali, Mexico, came to the US as a child, grew up in Earlimart(population 3,000 Mexicans), and has a different perspective of Mexican life than I do. He crossed the desert as a young child to make it into this country. He lived through poverty, overcame struggles, and knows all too well what it takes to work hard to want the “American Dream.” So, keeping that in mind, he does not hesitate to remind me when I am being ‘ignorant.’ Several years ago, two families of Oaxacan decent moved into the house across the street. Oaxacans are indigenous people of a part of Mexico (Oaxaca) who have their own dialect, physical characteristics (shorter and darker tone), and do not mind living in groups. Two families consisting of four adults and eight children moved into a three bedroom and one bath home. Then, during the apple season, six more adults moved into the garage. Apparently, I made comments which I will not repeat out of embarrassment. But I pretty much said, “There goes the neighborhood!” My husband kindly reminded me not to be biased and stereotype even our own “raza.” I wish there was an implicit association test for your own race. That would be interesting.

As you have probably considered, when asking your students to engage in this activity as an in-class assignment to be discussed afterward, you’ll want to first make sure you’ve established an atmosphere in your classroom that feels “safe” for the students to share their thoughts. You’ll also want to be prepared for the conversations to get heavy. When asking people to confront their possible biases, it can get very uncomfortable, and people can become defensive rather quickly. But, when carefully planned and navigated, assigning the Harvard Implicit Association Test on race provides an opportunity for meaningful self-reflection and contemplation that can positively alter the way future teachers view their students and plan their instruction.

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