Implicit Bias in a Pandemic: A Case of Virus Bias

Photo of Jennifer Abe
Jennifer Abe, Ph.D., Vice President for Intercultural Affairs | Professor of Psychology

By Jennifer Abe, Ph.D.
Vice President for Intercultural Affairs | Professor of Psychology

What comes to mind these days when you see a person wearing a mask as they go about their grocery shopping or other essential tasks. Do you assume that they are being careful or possibly ill? What if the person happens to be Asian or Asian American? What associations get triggered and why are these occurring in the present moment? Virus bias?

Implicit biases emerge from exposure to repeated associations. As part of the United States’ experience of the pandemic, associations between “Chinese,” “foreign,” or “Wuhan” and “virus” have been repeatedly communicated from the highest levels of our country’s leadership. These associations are not neutral, as we have also seen from many other groups in our nation who have had to resist communications seeking to reduce their identities and experiences to inaccurate negative caricatures. In this particular moment, however, Asians and Asian Americans may not only be more likely to be perceived as potential disease carriers compared with persons from other countries or groups, but more likely to be blamed and scapegoated as well. Consequently, we need to be alert to expressions of xenophobia, including the current wave of anti-Asian discrimination and violence that has emerged as part of the pandemic.

In the past few years, the Office of Intercultural Affairs (OIA) has led efforts to raise the collective awareness and education on implicit bias in our campus community. Hundreds of LMU students, staff, and faculty have participated in implicit bias workshops or presentation. It is in this context, as a campus community that understands implicit bias and its negative consequences, that it is worth examining the implications of implicit bias in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic.

In short, the current pandemic reminds us that implicit bias is real and so are its consequences. We are seeing one example of virus bias but need to stay vigilant for how bias can lead to stereotyping and scapegoating of any group. Our values as an LMU community call us to view all persons in their full humanity and to treat all groups in our society with justice and care. We belong to each another, in the words of Greg Boyle, S.J., and thus reject and resist the consequences of bias in all its forms and expressions, implicit and explicit.

So, take care with your assumptions and reflect twice upon your perceptions of groups that are vulnerable to being targeted and framed in biased ways. Be kind to all and we’ll get through this together. #LMUTogether.