Thinking We Can See Invisible Racism

invisible man

Invisible or covert racism is a difficult issue. It refers to subtle or unconscious forms of racial bias, and many white people have difficulty believing it exists. Even people of color aren’t sure it’s there when they notice something in an everyday interaction that feels offensive.

Makes sense. Invisible racism is invisible, which technically means “impossible to see” (, 2016). According to many prejudice researchers, that’s its power.

Well-known microaggression researcher Derald Wing Sue (2010) wrote that the invisibility “puts people of color in a psychological bind: While people of color may feel insulted, they are often uncertain why, and perpetrators are unaware that anything has happened and are not aware they have been offensive.” Thus, if you question the white “perpetrator,” you may be called “paranoid,” but if you don’t say anything, your “turmoil stews and percolates.”

On top of this difficult experiential reality for many people of color, being “impossible to see” means being very difficult to study. How do you study invisible racism?

The most promising tool thus far is the Implicit Association Test or IAT, whose creators claim can detect unconscious or implicit racial bias. The IAT measures the test taker’s reaction time in associating positive or negative words with certain groups of people such as blacks and whites. If one is biased against blacks, then one will take longer to associate positive words with blacks than with whites.

The IAT is available to take at many websites from academic to pop psych to the Public Broadcasting Service to Oprah’s site (2006) offers you the chance to discover “your hidden feelings about people of different races” but warns you that “finding out that you harbor hidden prejudices can be alarming.”


Psychology would not be the first modern-day science to claim that it can “see” the invisible. Physicists study things that are too tiny or too distant to directly observe but whose existence can be inferred. So too do prejudice researchers believe that they can infer people’s implicit racial bias.

But psychology is not as straightforward as physics. People are too complicated by comparison. French novelist Marcel Proust (1949) wrote that “the stellar universe is not so difficult of comprehension as the real actions of other people.”

Well-known social psychologist Daniel Gilbert seconded this notion in citing the “difficult business” of inferring people’s hidden inner traits and beliefs from their visible actions, which include the action of reaction times on the IAT. Gilbert further advised…

  • “If you prefer less difficult problems, then you might want to take Proust’s advice and switch from psychology to physics” (Gilbert, 1995, p. 102), and
  • “When one infers the invisible from the visible, one risks making a mistake” (Gilbert & Malone, 1995, p. 21).

Unfortunately from what I’ve seen, most microaggression researchers and presenters and those who use or promote the IAT rarely acknowledge this risk of mistakes.*

Needless to say, there are ongoing scholarly debates within each of these complex research areas (on microaggressions and implicit racial bias). Where do I begin?

This space is too short to do justice to the empirical and logical arguments that have been going back and forth (for a sampling from these debates, see Greenwald et al., 2015; Harris, 2008; Oswald et al., 2015; Sue et al., 2008; Tetlock & Arkes, 2004; Thomas, 2008; Tierney, 2008).

I’ve written before on the difficulty in calling someone microaggressive for their word choices (see

Among many potential problems with the IAT, many have argued that quickly associating negative terms with black people can reflect knowledge of stereotypes without personally holding a stereotype-based implicit attitude.

IAT advocates claim that IAT scores are predictive of discriminatory behavior, but even if that were as true as IAT advocates claim (which is debated), the research is correlational. The simplest problem sometimes gets lost in mega-debates, namely that correlation does not imply causation. Being predictive of something does not necessarily mean causing it.


Here are my bottom lines for the IAT:

  1. Despite the claims from many IAT advocates, the IAT cannot definitively reveal hidden bias. If you score poorly, you may or may not be a secret racist, but you may be.
  2. Most researchers who raise questions about the IAT (including myself) are asking IAT advocates simply to be more cautious in drawing conclusions. The debate is not between extremes. Few scholars doubt the existence of implicit racial bias.
  3. Even if the strongest IAT advocates are correct in all their conclusions, the research is based on averages. Not every white person harbors invisible bias against people of color, and many white people who may harbor invisible bias do not discriminate. So be careful thinking you can see invisible racism on your own in an everyday interaction.


*Note. Compared to most advocates for the microaggression concept and for the IAT in talks and articles and online, the Harvard IAT website Project Implicit takes a more balanced approach. Its disclaimer section says “we will mention possible interpretations [of visitors’ IAT results] that have a basis in research” but the IAT researchers and their universities “make no claim for the validity of these suggested interpretations.” ( This no-claim stance seems in stark contrast to the strong claims of validity by some of the same individuals in other venues.



Gilbert, D. T. (1995). Attribution and interpersonal perception. In A. Tesser (Ed.), Advanced Social Psychology (pp. 99-147). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gilbert, D. T., & Malone, P. S. (1995). The correspondence bias. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 21-38.

Greenwald, A. G., Banaji, M. R., & Nosek, B. A. (2015). Statistically small effects of the Implicit Association Test can have societally large effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 553-561.

Harris, R. S. (2008). Racial microaggression? How do you know? American Psychologist, 63, 275-276. (2016). Simple definition of INVISIBLE. Retrieved from (January 1, 2006). Overcoming prejudice. Retrieved from

Oswald, F. L., Mitchell, G., Blanton, H., Jaccard, J., & Tetlock, P. E. (2015). Using the IAT to predict ethnic and racial discrimination: Small effect sizes of unknown societal significance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108, 562-571.

Proust, M. (1949). Remembrance of things past: The captive (C. K. S. Moncrieff, Trans.). London: Chatto and Windus. (Original work published in 1923.)

Sue, D. W. (October 5, 2010). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Is subtle bias harmless? Psychology Today. Retrieved from

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Nadal, K. L., & Torino, G. C. (2008). Racial microaggressions and the power to define reality. American Psychologist, 63, 277-279.

Tetlock, P. E., & Arkes, H. R. (2004). The implicit prejudice exchange: Islands of consensus in a sea of controversy. Psychological Inquiry, 15, 311-321.

Thomas, K. R. (2008). Macrononsense in multiculturalism. American Psychologist, 63, 274-275.

Tierney, J. (November 17, 2008). In bias test, shades of gray. New York Times. Retrieved from


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