Philosophy Professor Alex Madva’s decision to make unconscious bias and racial perceptions the focus of his research came out of what he didn’t see when he looked around his graduate school classrooms.
He didn’t see many women or people of color.
“The discipline of philosophy suffers from bias,” he says. “It is a white, male place. It’s the only one of the humanities that skews towards men.”
Madva says that seeing people of color and women underrepresented in classes and race and gender issues largely ignored in discussions had an influence on him. He wanted to research the causes of biases and how they work in the mind.
The Philadelphia native will be sharing his expertise at Cal Poly Pomona as a visiting professor this academic year in the philosophy department.
Madva earned his bachelor’s degrees in English and Philosophy from Tufts University just outside of Boston. He received both his master’s and doctorate in philosophy from Columbia University and did a doctoral fellowship at U.C. Berkeley. He was a visiting professor at Vassar College last year. He is teaching Race and Racism in Western Thought this quarter.
Unconscious bias stems, in large part, from the stereotypes that people are bombarded with in the media, as well as the fact that many still grow up in largely segregated communities, Madva says. An awareness of how the various ethnic and gender groups are treated starts early, he says.
“Children by 6 years old can already tell the status differences between the different groups,” he says. “Kids are smart. They pick up on the cues out there.”
The key to eliminating or lessening biases and their effects historically has been integration, not just getting different people in a room together, but putting them in situations where they must cooperate, Madva says, citing the armed forces and sport teams as examples of this.
It’s important to acknowledge differences in perspective, be open and try not to worry going into a conversation with someone of a different ethnicity or gender about what not to do and say, he adds.
And start with belief.
“Even if you believe that implicit bias is changeable or malleable, that already makes you less biased,” he says. “When interacting with people from different backgrounds, if you can find any common thing with them, even something mundane, you can get the ball rolling for having a positive interaction.”