Skip to main content

Implicit Bias: Short Moments, Long-Lasting Effects

By Philine Fleck, Blue Sky Graduate Assistant, MBA Candidate

We encounter implicit biases almost every day–whether we have them or they are directed towards us. They can be very subtle but have a huge impact on an individual. To understand my story, it is important to know that I was born and raised in Germany. Germany has a history which does not shine in a positive light. One of the most devastating historical events include Hitler and the Nazis’ persecution of the Jews. To this day, my entire country is devastated and at loss of words for these horrible actions. It is of the utmost importance to our culture, and our imperative to prevent something similar in nature to ever happen again. Within my country there is no blame assessed to my generation–the responsibility put on my generation is the unspoken expectation to understand how this past was able to happen and to ensure that nothing similar will ever happen again. My generations’ grandparents were teenagers or young adults during this time and have felt the impact of the happenings at the time. The magnitude of the impact of this cruel time in our history has imprinted on the fabric of our society and deep within my soul.

In school, we are taught about this past in mandatory history classes, and terms such as Nazi, Hitler, and Holocaust are only to be mentioned in serious discussions about that time. Understanding the social impact of my past and as a German society our coping mechanisms as well as attendance to our obligation to prevent a recurrence of such a frightful time will hopefully allow you to see my perspective on the following situation: I came to America to study in 2016. After spending about a year in the U.S., I was going on a walk with a close friend of mine. I will never forget the words she used that were just the most natural and normal thing to her. I can’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but she said the words “I don’t want to be a Nazi about it”. She meant that she did not want to be stickler about something. As soon as I heard the phrase, I stopped in my tracks. I had never, ever heard someone use the term Nazi in such a casual way ever before. My initial thought was, “This is something you simply CANNOT say.” I felt very hurt that someone took a term we take so seriously in Germany and used it in such a generic way. Not only that, I felt like my culture had been disrespected and that what Germany is working so hard to prevent from ever happening again was disrespected–including an ongoing fight against the Nazis that still exists. It just shook every bone in my body and every fiber of my being was confused because I would have never imagined hearing those words in such a common and casual context.

Another of my international friends has also struggled with unconscious bias, and she describes the feeling it conveys very well in my perspective and I can find myself in her words. She describes such experiences causing the following feelings:

“After I experience exclusion or incidences of implicit bias, there tends to be an order to the feelings, responses, and reactions that evolve:

  1. Disappointment in myself and feeling as insignificant as humanly possible, especially because the source of differentiation or reason for exclusion is presumptions about who I am. These are based mostly on unchangeable attributes, like color, race, and nationality.
  2. I almost always have no immediate reaction except for the experience of pain. This can also be felt physically and result in physiological responses such as vomiting (surprisingly common), headaches, fevers, and long-term health implications like depression and anxiety.
  3.  After I have digested the pain to a certain extent I tend to respond in the following ways:
    1. Guilt– This might be surprising but all the above makes me feel guilty because my existence is a cause of discomfort for someone.
    2. Withdrawal– This arises mostly from a lack of confidence, not wanting to stand out more than I already do, fear of recurrence of the incident, and difficulty in participating in everyday conversations.
    3. Confusion– I spend a considerable amount of time recalling every interaction with persons that have expressed bias against me wondering what I might have done to cause the incidence of bias.
  4. For a few weeks after the incident, associated feelings tend to take over my world if I am not meditating 300 hours per week to center myself.
  5. I eventually get some intense workouts done to get that serotonin going. One such workout will take me to a stable mental space where I can conquer the world. Although momentarily.
  6. Repeat steps 1-6 as many times as applicable, depending on how generous the world decides to be[1].

Like all of us, I have experienced incidences of bias in all sorts of places and all over the world. However, I truly believe that we all mean well and that these biases are unconscious.

However, the disclaimers above do not make it okay. Research proves that we can consciously change the reactions we have to those we tend to exclude[2], and we owe it to each other to at least try.”


Attend our first virtual Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Summit on October 20th to learn more about unconscious bias and what tools you or your organization can use to more effectively mitigate it.



[1] Incidences of subtle bias are more frequent than those of blatant discrimination

[2] “We have a better chance at checking our behavior than implicit bias”. Can You Overcome Inbuilt Bias?, Forbes 2020