Industry News

You Can Confront Racism and Implicit Biases—But Can You Unlearn Them?

June 10, 2020

By Katch Silva

We’re in an empty subway train, and as it comes to a stop, a mass of people get on. Among them, a slouching kid with death metal blasting from his headphones, a young woman with a buzzed head and tattoos, an overweight man holding himself up on his cane, a dark-skinned man carrying a big suitcase, a young woman who seems to be of Asian decent carrying a backpack, a few dark-skinned 20-somethings carrying backpacks and laughing as they pass around a phone, an olive-skinned woman who is speaking loudly into her phone in a language you can’t understand, and what looks to be a family of five—the mother wears a black covering (a niqab, perhaps) over her entire body and face except for her eyes.

What do you think these people are like? Can you describe them? Did you picture any other additional physical features? Did you unwittingly assign certain characteristics to any of the people? Is the death-metal-listening kid perhaps a bit rebellious? Do you have any intangible feelings about the overweight man and his cane? Or the woman peering out of her niqab?

What you may have felt or thought about any of these people—that’s implicit bias. It’s the reason why job applicants with “white-sounding” names are 74 percent more likely to receive a positive response than applicants with “ethnic-sounding” names who have identical resumes. Bias is the reason men are 1.4 times more likely to be funded than women when applying for scientific grants, even when the scientific field and age are controlled for.

Implicit biases impact your life every day, whether you realize it or not. These automated conditioned responses cause us to make unfair and unsupported assumptions about someone or something, and they often operate below the conscious level.

Due to deeply engrained biases, some of us have sadly lost the ability to really see one another. I mean, really see a human person for who they actually are—not for what they do, what labels they’re forced to carry, what category society puts them into, or what “group” they belong to, or don’t belong to.

The concept of emptiness comes to mind. If we could just empty ourselves of all these preconceived labels and categories and really see the person who is in front of us, as empty of judgement as possible, only then will we gain our humanity back—our ability to see and hear each other with compassion, knowing we are all, truly and deeply, the same.

The first step towards freeing ourselves, and one another, is awareness.


A huge portion of “learning” our brains do throughout life is entirely unconscious and remains inaccessible to us long after we’ve mastered it. These become fully integrated patterns. Second nature. In other words, every facet of who and what we are, as well as our interpersonal relationships, are constantly and continuously affected by a huge array of behavioral patterns that we never intended to learn in the first place.

Racism is one of these patterns.
Racism is learned.
Racism is conditioned bias.
Racism, in some form, is written into each of us.

If your eyes have recently been opened to the magnitude of the impact that racism has had in America, that’s great. Let me say, I’m glad to see you here, friend. This is just the beginning.

In addition to doing the activist work you’re doing on your own, let me suggest an additional personal plan of action: I urge you to look inward with all the compassion you can muster and identify the biases you find in your own history. Sit with them, painfully if you must.

Identifying bias is the first step to freeing yourself from it. The rest of the work will take a lifetime, and it is worth it. Let this first step fuel your fire for future change.


It’s a simple exercise. Grab a pencil and paper (or your laptop) and free-write: Think about the prompt “Racism in My Life,” and write down everything that comes to mind.

This exercise isn’t an excuse to make it about yourself. This is a personal growth exercise so that you can be better able to help others, because I believe that some of us need to locate and eradicate the roots of racist bias in our own lives if we can hope to make true lasting change in our society.

Make sure you do this from a place of deliberate love and compassion, for yourself and for your fellow humans. Otherwise, it’s not going to do much except anger and upset you.

This can be really difficult. I understand. But that’s no excuse not to do it. If it helps, write it as a letter to yourself. Nobody else has to read it. This isn’t meant to be an accusatory everything that’s wrong essay. It’s meant to be an honest, conscientious, perhaps difficult but kind look inward.

I did this recently myself and then decided to write this article.

In me, racism bloomed when I was young. I grew up in a somewhat homogenous environment on a farm in Colombia. My brown skin was darker than that of most of my relatives. My sister often liked to joke that I must have been adopted.

Brown or olive skin is a common variation where I grew up. I never really thought much about my skin color in Colombia, other than sometimes wishing I wasn’t so different. Racism still exists down there, to be sure. But as a young child in a protected environment, I was consciously oblivious to the topic.

I moved to the States when I was 9, and I suddenly became the undesired novelty. It happened so fast.

My view of myself and of my fellow people of color was mercilessly carved by everything around me: the media, TV, beauty magazines, my peers, my teachers. I started to hate the color of my skin. I avoided exposing my skin to the sun at all costs. I would leave my house in a long sleeve and long pants in the middle of Florida summer just to avoid getting darker.

I recall this behavior as young as the age of 10. I didn’t consciously think about my fellow people of color, and I didn’t hold hate towards anyone. But I definitely had a preference, and it was white. I just wasn’t aware of it. That’s how bias works. That’s how racism works.

I also learned to play the part that bias wrote for me. As an immigrant child, I desperately wanted to be liked and to fit in. As I learned the english language, I also learned that some of my peers found the fact that I was a small brown girl, let’s say, comical. So I leaned into it. I would refer to myself as a small little brown girl as often as I could, and play up my imperfect grasp on english and my “Latina-isms.” It got me the laughs of acceptance I so desperately wanted. I don’t blame them; I don’t blame anyone. I was in on it. We were all under a collective cultural delusion that it’s okay to make fun of people for things like skin color and gender.

Looking back now, these seemingly harmless patterns of behavior were so damaging to my mental development. I truly hated some aspects of who I was, and my skin, hair and accent were three big ones. (To be fair, there are other mental illness reasons as to why I learned to hate parts of myself—but racism had a huge impact on those as well.)

As I grew up, those biases took different forms. Perhaps in the fact that I’ve inadvertently never dated a Latino or an African-American person. Or when I was a young college student walking home alone in West Philly every night, when a dark-skinned male walked behind me, I felt the instinctual pang of fear women feel in dark alleys at night, and I sometimes wondered if that raw response would be lessened if the male had been white.

I’m a brown Latina, and I’m aware that the impact I’ve felt personally is only a fraction of what black people have dealt with for hundreds of years. I’m sharing my experience in the hopes of motivating you to think about your own experience and that of those around you. I believe that social change is two-fold—internal and external—and I’m beginning with myself.


I’ve found plenty of other biases within me that I’m embarrassed to admit, but the only way forward is to come to terms with the part I have played as honestly as possible, so here it is: tendencies towards sexism, racism, ethnic bias, ageism and other discriminatory assumptions take place in my brain more often than I wish. Sometimes I catch myself making a mental assumption about a stranger on the street, and then I have to shamefully remind myself to look deeper before coming to any more conclusions about anyone or anything. Sometimes I catch myself thinking negative self-thoughts, such as, “I hate my thick, coarse hair! Why can’t my hair be better!” and immediately realize the racist foundations behind it.

We all do it. That’s my point. It’s learned. It’s conditioned. It’s a very real thing.

I have shaken off some parts, but there are some that still remain. These patterns are often difficult to notice, so here is a list of other potential sources of discrimination that we partake in from time to time.

We make assumptions about someone based on:

  • Their gender identity
  • Their gender expression
  • Their sexual orientation
  • Their race
  • Their ethnicity
  • Their age
  • Their occupation
  • Their accent
  • Their weight
  • Their height
  • Their physical appearance
  • Their clothes
  • Their hairstyle
  • How good-looking they are
  • What music they listen to
  • Who their parents are
  • Who their family is
  • Where they live
  • Where they come from
  • What language they speak (or don’t speak)
  • Any other aspect of what they do or what they look like

I’m not listing these to take away from the very real issue of racism. I simply want to urge you to take this opportunity to evaluate every way in which you’ve lost the ability to see a real, feeling human when you look at someone who is different than you.


If you dove into activist mode this month without hesitation, that’s great. But don’t forget: Just like anti-racism is a lifestyle, attempting to unlearn your biases is a life-long process.

We’re trying to unlearn hundreds of years of oppression that have been branded into each of our personal histories. We’re also trying to unlearn millions of years of evolutionary adaptation, of the competition-driven life, of alpha-male domination, of sexual war and death, of tribalism, of us vs. them.

How are most things learned and unlearned, neurologically speaking? Through exposure, education, and constant repetition and reinforcement.

Reinforcement is the game our brains play.
Reinforcement is the language our neurology speaks.
Reinforcement needs time. A lot of it.

It’s one thing to know that your neighbor is just like you, despite their skin color, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, choice of music, clothing, etc. It’s another thing to feel, in your very being, that you are the same, and to not feel the pull of bias everywhere you look. That big, true unlearning requires constant exploration and reinforcement.

And how do I propose we reinforce? Reinforcement is about exposing ourselves, and others, to the things that the -ism doesn’t want us to know.

Here’s a short list of things to help us unlearn what racism has reinforced in us:

  1. Read books written by black people. Educate yourself and learn about perspectives different than your own.
  2. Share the work of black artists, writers, creators.
  3. Support black-owned small businesses. Helping our fellow humans succeed will help others see their greatness and begin to break down their biased walls.
  4. Speak up if you hear a relative say something racist. Help them see their own bias and be the reinforcement they need to hear. Do this with compassion, because remember, we all have bias and we all have to start somewhere.
  5. Talk to people—your friends, your family, your neighbors—about the issue and where they stand.
  6. Google if you feel stuck. You’ll get there.

For those of us in the wedding industry, it’s important to remember how exposure and reinforcement works. Our industry hasn’t been the best mirror of diversity, and I think we can all admit that—myself included. For my own part, I’m making a commitment to give black humans a voice on my platform, to share more diverse work, to seek more diverse work and to motivate others in the industry to do so as well.

Also, an important note to all photographers: If your aesthetic excludes diversity, it’s time to rethink your aesthetic.


Being biased doesn’t make you a bad person; it makes you human. Not a single person chose their biases, and not a single person lacks them. But choosing inaction, choosing to let your biases go unnoticed, that, I would argue, makes you a human that needs more compassion and less self-centeredness in your life.

I know it’s scary. Trust me, I know what it’s like to be terrified of what you might find inside and what you might do once you find it. If you’re white, you and your family’s lives aren’t in danger. Black lives are. Black people don’t have a choice. The privileged do. If you’re part of the privileged, there’s no excuse not to look inward and spark change.

Movement forward is two-fold: an inward examination of ourselves as well as an outward, active role in changing society and policy. Only if we’re brave enough to look inward without judgement will we be able to unearth the darkness inside, expose it—and in doing so, achieve change, both internal and external.

Let’s begin with ourselves.


Take 15 minutes to do this test if you want to experience how your own bias works. If you’ve never heard of this, read this before taking it.

This is the Implicit Association Test. It was created by three researchers to educate the public about implicit biases. This is obviously not a fool-proof final result of your bias, but it will give you an idea of how bias works. You can take the test based on a wide number of variables, including gender, skin tone, weight, religion, race, age, etc. At the end, you’ll see how your results compare to the average.

Katch Silva is a wedding photographer and a Rangefinder 30 Rising Star of Wedding Photography in 2015. This month, all proceeds from sales on her photo site are going to Black Lives Matter. Lately, she has written a series for us on mindfulness for creatives on why it’s important to beware the productivity hustle in isolation, how to get unstuck from a rut and breaking negative habits and thought patterns. Her education can be found at