Scrutinizing the Self

Exploring implicit bias through Self, Made

by Anabelle Johnston

published November 22, 2019

The dark walls of "Self, Made" crept upward until they became indistinguishable from the ceiling, the disorienting scene complete with exposed industrial bars and canary yellow paneling describing each installation. There was no apparent organization to the exhibit, housed in San Francisco’s Exploratorium from May to September of this year. Instead, the idiosyncratic collection served as a cacophonous paean to “the self” and the forces that mold identity, both welcome and unwanted.

A short history of drag complimented a black box projector that allowed guests to view themselves in outfits curated by artist Charlene Eldon, demonstrating the relationship between the inner conception and outward projection of one’s self. As I peered at my reflection behind a projection of a neon jumpsuit, I couldn’t help but imagine an alter-ego as a suburban 80s villain. I hadn’t seriously considered what my own checkered pants and blue t-shirt said about me, but as I stared at a version of myself someone else had fashioned, I was acutely aware of the subjective nature of existing in someone else’s view.

I held a burlap sack of identity-labeled bean bags, weighing a stranger’s self-identification before spilling “female,” “Christian,” and “Spanish” on the table. I thought about the person who unwittingly but immediately came to mind, wondering if she was bilingual, if she came with a family. I wanted to associate her with other people and place her in a larger setting, imagining a life for her that was beyond her control. In participating, I was constructing an image of someone in my mind, and actively confronting where that image came from. Was it a result of culture, how I had seen those abstract labels commonly represented? Was even imagining her inherently wrong? I wondered how I would be viewed as I left behind my own collection of titles for another to find. When pared down to a few words, could anyone construct a version of me that remotely resembled how I saw myself?

Wandering through the exhibit, I paused to look at work by Kehinde Wiley, Esmaa Mohamoud, and Melissa Cody, reading blurbs about their respective work and how the artists express their individual and collective identities through their art. As I examined the isolation of aspects of the self into historical, familial, and educational influences, I was forced to consider what makes me me. More pointedly, am I just a product of the world around me?

After watching a short film about the “hive mind,” I sat at a table among a collection of activities tucked away in the corner and read the bolded instructions to a seemingly simple two-player sorting game. Both partners were given the same set of magnetic words to sort into a combination of two categories: male/female and professional/domestic. One partner divided their magnets into the traditional “working man” and “homemaking woman,” while the other divided their terms into the avant-garde “business woman” and “stay-at-home-male.” The task: sort terms ranging from "Barbara" to "promotion" to "washing dishes" to "Jack" faster than the other person. As a proud and self-proclaimed feminist, I was undaunted by the challenge and felt prepared to debunk gender stereotyping by combining traditionally masculine names with domestic tasks. And yet, I found myself momentarily paralyzed as I let the words “salary raise” hover over the table when faced with the decision between male and professional. Salary raises exist within the working realm and yet, I (among others) unwittingly associated advancement with men. Although I understood that was the purpose of the exercise, I was stunned by the stomach-churning sensation I felt when forced to confront bias I didn’t know I possessed.

In retrospect, I’m not sure what I expected. It was only natural that I had internalized the norms of that structure despite my conscious attempts to actively reject it. That is the disheartening crux of implicit bias; though I am an individual, I exist within a larger structure, so I will always carry strains of that structure within me.




Intentionally or not, we constantly stereotype the world around us: noticing patterns, making generalizations, drawing (unfair) conclusions. How one dresses, what language one speaks, what religion—if any—one aligns themselves with are all interpretable statements about the self can easily be distilled into compact stereotypes that inform our perceptions of each other. I, like many others, have tried to condition myself to ignore or deny the presence of these internalized judgements, believing it better to imagine that I could somehow exist outside of the societal constructs of us and them. The purpose of the "Self, Made" exercise—and of the original Implicit Association Test (IAT)—is to acknowledge differing implicit associations and explicit attitudes, and expose bias that was not previously registered. The IAT measures the strength of association between concepts, stereotypes, and positive/negative evaluations through categorization response time, much like the "Self, Made" activity. How quickly a respondent is able to connect the evaluative term “good” with different weights, religions, races, sexualities, disabilities, and skin-tones is said to “scientifically measure prejudice” and has been utilized by Harvard’s Project Implicit since 1995.

Although the presence of implicit bias doesn’t necessarily correlate with individual acts of discrimination, even subconscious generalizations about a group can have dire consequences in the micro and macroscales. If a company executive implicitly associates men with salary raises, they may be more likely to raise the pay of men who work under them. If enough company executives act upon it, the median pay for women in the United States as measured by the 2018 US Census bureau will be 82% of median male pay. Compounded by bias against women of color, the pay gap only increases for Black women, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander women, Native American women, and Hispanic Women. In that light, implicit bias no longer becomes a game for me to play on a summer afternoon in San Francisco, but rather a series of harmful internalized beliefs with grave consequences.

Once implicit bias is registered, the more pressing question then becomes whether it is possible to “treat” it. Abstractly thinking about implicit bias can only do so much; individual-based strategies are rendered ineffective in the face of biased (and worse—actively racist, classist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, ableist) established systems that impose these beliefs in the first place. Project Implicit recommends fighting bias by actively suppressing, offering few suggestions beyond exposure to different groups and volunteering at nursing homes to increase positive associations with the elderly (advice that is as useful as recommending collective classical conditioning.) Ohio State University provides online modules that structure conversation about implicit associations, outlining factors that make an individual more susceptible to possessing bias in a way that comforts the audience without challenging the biased system itself. I don’t believe that suggesting mindfulness practice on an organizational scale can undo centuries of institutionalized racism and the reconciliation of that history in the modern day. Sugarcoating implicit bias comforts the beneficiaries—those who receive the pay raises and are in the place to give them—at the expense of everyone else. By not challenging the unequal systems in which people are operating and attributing prejudice solely to the individual, the problem of “implicit bias” lends itself to superficial solutions.

However, recognition that compounded bias as a result of cultural norms only serves to reinforce these structures, and creating art that challenges that closed loop could act as a starting point for change. Angélica Dass’s “Humanæ” project housed at "Self, Made" aimed to stimulate conversation about race through a collection of Pantone swatches based off of skin tones and bust cut portraits of the subject. This visual representation of the distilled ways we see each other sparks conversation about racial profiling and colorism inflicted upon the individual. Dass stated that the purpose of her project is to prove that “race is a social construction,” drawing attention to the limited ways we see and think about each other within these narrow structures, and asking the collective to break free of them.




As a collection, "Self, Made" served to demonstrate how the individual is inextricably intertwined with others, and the impossibility of separating oneself from the values of the society one lives in. From this perspective, any implicit bias harbored by the individual is a fault of miseducation, overt stereotyping, and repeated poor representation of others (and oneself). As a facet of the larger fight against implicit bias—and the weighted systems it is tied to—"Self, Made" suggests changing the media that perpetuates stereotypes entirely.

The exhibit housed a collection of graphic novels that described disabilities as superpowers, actively changing representation and the traditional image of what it means and looks like to be a hero. This installation was completed by Chad Allen’s audio comic book Unseen, described to be “written by a blind person, with a blind heroine, for blind (and sighted) audiences.” Although a collection of comic books alone cannot change an ableist culture, it does have the capacity to encourage many to rethink heroism and strength. The diversification of heroes on the big screen through movies like Black Panther expand this audience and actively combat the singular narrative of one role model, as stated in the display of T’Challa and Shuri’s costumes in "Self, Made."

The existence of this art alone cannot fix or undo society’s ills, but it is a start to understanding how we think about each other, and what causes us to think that way. "Self, Made" forced me to acknowledge that the boundary between the self and culture is not so clearly defined—potentially the first step to actively undoing my unwanted implicit associations. I have control over what I create and consume, and am working to understand that art (though not always overtly) reflects societal values that I internalize for better or for worse.

The self may be made, but I hope to be primary creator.


ANABELLE JOHNSTON B’23 wonders what you imagine her to be.