Image from the interim report published by the Ontario Human Rights Commission

Systemic Bias vs Implicit Bias: Why the Difference Matters When Reviewing the Report by the Ontario Human Rights Commission on Racial Profiling by the Toronto Police Services

Leesa Renee Hall
Dec 10, 2018 · 5 min read

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released an interim report in December 2018 looking at racial profiling and discrimination by Toronto police toward the city’s black community.

The results are dire.

OHRC found that:

  • Between 2013 and 2017, a Black person was nearly 20 times more likely than a White person to be involved in a fatal shooting by the Toronto Police.
  • Despite representing only 8.8% of Toronto’s population, Black people made up approximately 30% of police use-of-force cases that resulted in serious injury or death, 60% of deadly encounters with Toronto Police, and 70% of fatal police shootings.

The joint response from the Toronto Police Service (TPS) and the Toronto Police Service Board (TPSB) was good. They acknowledged that “bias is impossible to deny, but it must never be accepted as inevitable,” took responsibility for the findings in the report, and made a committment to do better.

But there is an inherent problem. The focus on breaking down systemic biases may give the impression that this problem is for TPS to solve on its own.

The Difference Between Systemic Bias vs Implicit / Unconscious Bias

First, let’s dig deep into the differences between systemic bias, and implicit / unconscious bias.

Systemic bias is prejudice, bigotry, or unfairness directed by health, educational, government, judicial, legal, religious, political, financial, media, or cultural institutions towards individuals of an oppressed or marginalized group.

Implicit or unconscious bias (hereafter unconscious bias) is prejudice, bigotry, or unfairness directed by someone from a privileged group towards individuals from an oppressed or marginalized group.

To put it simply, systemic biases are barriers maintained by institutions while unconscious biases are ones upheld by individuals.

Why Knowing the Difference Matters

There is a paragraph in the TPS and TPSB joint response which stands out. Specificially:

“Our police service has a specific responsibility that we accept. We will continue to be open to exploring the overall approach to police use of force, as well as critically examining the specific cases where it has been employed. However, in order to find meaningful and lasting remedies, other institutions, organizations and levels of government will need to take this most important mandate on with us. We are ready, willing and actively doing the hard work that is required of us.” (source)

This distinction matters.

If one part of the legal system — policing — is working to eliminate unconscious biases amongst its members, but another part of the legal system — let’s say, lawyers — are not, then the Black community will continue to be marginalized and oppressed by a system which judges them unfairly due to nothing more than a function of biology.

This isn’t just regulated to policing or other legal institutions. Non-legal institutions also bare responsibility in doing an inventory of how their employees, members, and clients uphold systemic biases through their unconscious biases. For example:

To guarantee that Black people living in the province of Ontario, in general, and the city of Toronto, specifically, can enjoy the fundamental freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, of equal treatment before and under the law, of equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination, and the right to life, liberty, and security as guaranteed by the Charter of Rights & Freedom, all institutions must take responsibility to review and remedy the barriers which prevent the Black community from full participation within the country of their birth and/or residence, and fidelity.

How to Start the Process of Unpacking Biases

The best way to address systemic biases is to first help individuals unpack their unconscious biases. Using guided questions, individuals can use expressive writing to uncover why they believe what they believe about a person from an oppressed or marginalized group.

Institutions are made up of individuals. That’s why it’s important that individuals are held accountable in addressing their unconscious biases. If not, there can be a temptation to depersonalize the work and make it appear that they are exceptional.

For example, if a Black couple goes to a bank to get a mortgage, and they’re denied, the individual will say, “Well, it’s the bank that’s racist, not me.” Or, if a young Black man has to see five different doctors before his symptoms are taken seriously, the individual will say, “Well, it’s the hospital that’s racist, not me.”

Workshops which bring groups together to work on unpacking unconscious biases is a start. Be sure to hire an experienced anti-oppression facilitator to lead this endeavour. Too often, companies and corporations will try to do this work in house by assigning the person of colour on the team to organize a “lunch and learn” where other employees reluctantly attend. This is a recipe for disastor as it’ll only build resentment and increase hostility within the organization.

Also, there are nuances that can create further division if the workshop is not led by an experienced facilitator. Without the right guidance, participants may become performative. For example:

  • Some will believe they are exceptional and don’t need the training because they have a Black family member or because they don’t see skin colour.
  • Another may show up believing that talking about racism is divisive.
  • Yet another may want to be perfect and show the facilitator that they are being a good student by saying all the right things.

It’s harder to hide from oneself. Thus, using a tool that allows for self-reflection and introspection in a guided workshop format can help the individual, not only be true to themselves, but also see how their unconscious biases contribute to the larger issue of system biases.

Leesa Renee Hall is a Toronto-based writer and creator of Unpack Biases Now™, a program designed to help individuals question their unconscious biases using guided prompts and expressive writing so they become effective leaders in their communities, corporations, and companies. (contact)

Leesa Renee Hall

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Questions are life. Especially when I ask them of my soul. Navigating the art of self-inquiry.