Think about the encounters you have with strangers every day. When you stop by the grocery store and notice people in the check out line, what comes to mind? Does the young parent with multiple very small children bring up any emotions or thoughts? What do you think of the food items being purchased by the person who is underweight or overweight? How do you react when a group of teens with darkly dyed hair, piercings, and tattoos is standing in the doorway? Now consider a group of clean-cut teens? Everyone has biases: those subconscious perceptions of people around us. They shape our actions and judgements. But, biases are often incorrect. They are generalizations about a group based on our cultural norms or expectations, but may have no actual basis in reality. For example, the parent with multiple young children in the check out line may be a nanny not a single parent. The clean-cut teens in the doorway may be waiting for a peer who is stealing alcohol while the pierced and tattooed teens are trying to advocate for ending childhood hunger.

Recent events have shown that bias occurs amongst individuals as well as institutions. Consider the 14-year-old student who built a clock and brought it to school to show his teacher last week. He had no prior disciplinary problems and was an excellent student. This student happened to be Muslim, of South East Asian decent, and had the last name Mohamed. He was handcuffed and arrested at school while accused of bringing a bomb. In the photos of his arrest, he is obviously young and happens to be wearing a NASA t-shirt. This student, who was trying to impress his teacher, was suspended following his arrest.

There was a separate incident this summer involving youth (again around age 14) at a pool party in an upper class neighborhood. Resident teens invited friends to their community pool. Many of the friends were African American. Neighbors called police and there is graphic video of an officer putting an obviously unarmed girl in a bright orange bikini on the ground. In the audio you hear her crying and asking him to call her mother. Just watching the video, one would consider the actions assault on a minor.

Now consider the shooting of unarmed church members in South Carolina this summer. The shooter was a young man with a criminal record, but he happened to be clean-cut and unassuming in appearance. If he’d looked different would bystanders have alerted authorities sooner?

I don’t mention these incidents to place blame on schools, police, or community members, nor to say their actions were wrong. All play significantly positive roles in the lives of adolescents, but these incidents highlight how implicit bias based on appearance can lead to different actions.

How does bias impact parents and teens? What can we do about it?

-First, recognize that bias exists and call it out when you realize it’s impacting your decision making.

-Talk about incidents like those mentioned above with your teens. Have they experienced discrimination based on assumptions? Have they treated someone differently based on personal bias?

-Step out of your comfort zone. We tend to be-friend people who are like ourselves. Along with your teen, explore opportunities to experience things outside of your norm. For example, if there is a ethnic celebration in your town, go. Meet new people and ask questions. As we expose ourselves to more people different from ourselves and have positive experiences, those implicit biases we have will be questioned.

-consider taking an implicit bias test to see where you make assumptions. The results may enlighten and surprise you. Here is one example of an implicit bias test opportunity