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Understanding Stereotypes and Implicit Assumptions

A page within CATL Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence


Some of the barriers instructors inadvertently pose to the success of historically marginalized students come from our own unconscious use of stereotypes, what researchers now call "implicit assumptions" or "implicit bias."

A “stereotype,” according to Harvard University's research group Project Implicit, is “the belief that most members of a group have some characteristic.” Note that this is a psychologists’ definition that assumes that one characteristic constitutes a stereotype (e.g., men are better at math than women; or, Asian Americans are good at math). See below for some useful historical perspectives that can help us understand the processes through which stereotypes develop and are reinforced or reinvented.

An “implicit stereotype,” in the context of Inclusive Excellence for instructors, means thinking about a student in terms of social stereotypes about a group to which that person belongs, without being aware that you have done so.  In the lives of college instructors, examples of implicit bias might include:

  • Sending a struggling student of color to OMSS or a student with a disability to ACCESS for help, without noticing that we typically take our own time to help other students
  • Asking a student if it’s ok to call them some other name because their name looks unpronounceable to us, without considering how that might feel
  • Asking women students to smile, without noticing that we are unlikely to ask men to smile
  • Praising a student of color effusively for substandard work without noticing that we typically pick out just one good thing in white students’ substandard work
  • Calling on men more often than women, or challenging men to think more clearly or deeply than women, without considering that we might be replicating the stereotype that views women as less rational than men

Summary of Research

Tests that measure an individual’s implicit stereotypes are publicly available at Harvard University’s Project Implicit website.  Sections of the website explain the development and validation of the instruments.  As the researchers behind these tests note, the tests measure “the strength of associations between concepts (e.g., black people, gay people) and evaluations (e.g., good, bad) or stereotypes (e.g., athletic, clumsy).” Because the tests are designed to measure subconscious associations, even those who firmly believe in equality and equity often do hold implicit biases against certain populations.  If we do not consciously consider how the pervasive stereotypes in our society might be shaping what we do as instructors, we might assume we are immune to those stereotypes. 

Most of the research on implicit bias comes from psychology, but history should inform our understanding of stereotypes as well.  Historians generally view stereotypes as larger, more complex sets of beliefs because of the complexities of their evolution.  Stereotypes about many groups are deeply rooted in the past and contain multiple characteristics that intersect with other social hierarchies (e.g., stereotypes about African American men differ from those about African American women in some ways).  Stereotypes also typically evolve in counterpoint to social ideals.  In other words, the labor-free privileged life of the “Southern Belle" gained justification from a "Mammy" stereotype of an intellectually-compromised woman fit only to do all the physical labor to maintain a lifestyle she does not share. But that southern ideal of white femininity also depended on "white trash" or "redneck" stereotypes as people on whom wealthy whites could blame racism, miscegenation, and racial violence.

Because dominant groups evolved both stereotypes and ideals (sometimes consciously but often unconsciously) to justify unequal treatment of some groups and invisible privileging of others, stereotypes are pervasive, historically persistent, and likely to shape policy, law, cultural products (e.g., advertisement or roles in movies), institutional practices, and daily interactions.  As a result, most of us have learned stereotypes very well, even if we have never met someone from a particular stigmatized group, and even if we come from a particular stigmatized group ourselves.  Groups about which stereotypes circulate in many societies include populations stigmatized by racial or ethnic divisions, lower socioeconomic classes, women, people who identify as transgender, people with disabilities, and people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual. 

A “positive stereotype” about a group that has been unjustly treated historically (e.g., Asian Americans are good at math) is for historians part of a larger historical dialogue about social inequalities.  The educational success nationally of Asian Americans, for example, became part of a larger stereotype of “the model minority” used to argue that racial inequality is the fault of those who most suffer from it.  The “model minority” is a slap in the face to African Americans, Latino/as, and Native Americans, because it assumes that they have not behaved correctly and that that is why they encounter racism.  For Asian Americans, the model minority stereotype still casts them as outsiders – as minorities, sometimes even as perpetual immigrants.  Students (and colleagues) who are aware of these complex histories may find the phrase “positive stereotype” baffling, if not offensive.

Researchers who study the role of bias in society find that acting on stereotypes, whether our beliefs about them are implicit or explicit, remains commonplace.  In educational settings, implicit stereotyping can lead to a variety of acts such as microaggressions, tokenizing, and failing to differentiate between two or more individuals.  For our students, it can cause our students to underperform, to question their own competence, and/or to feel isolated or unsupported in our courses and on our campus. 


  • Self-education.  Understanding the patterns of social stereotypes, their origins, and their contemporary manifestations can help us learn to see them more quickly.  As with other forms of learning, testing our developing skills of stereotype-detection will help us improve.
  • Awareness.  The evidence that stereotypes persist and that they are harmful.
  • Self-awareness.  Believing ourselves to be unbiased is not sufficient.  In fact, it is likely to keep us part of the problem.  Recognizing that patterns of bias exist and that we are likely to act on them unconsciously does not make us bad people. It makes us part of the solution.
  • An individual’s implicit biases are difficult to change, according to the researchers who developed the IAT Tests.  Thinking before we act or speak is an important method to counteract our subconscious.  Retraining methods of perception can help as well (e.g., teaching police officers to observe particular types of gestures that do and do not indicate a threat). 
  • Acknowledge your mistakes, and pay better attention next time.  Recognize that an apology may not always be accepted, and if that happens, it is likely to be because your action was just one of the ten thousand that happened that day and it was all just too much.  That doesn’t make your student a bad person either. 


Project Implicit. (2011). Frequently asked questions. Project Implicit website.  Retrieved from 

Banaji, M., & Greenwald, Anthony G. (2013). Blindspot: Hidden biases of good people. Delacorte Press.

Fair Play Game. Fair Play is a downloadable free video game designed by colleagues at UW Madison to teach instructors about the forms of racial (and to some extent, gender) bias most likely to occur in a university setting.  The game follows a new graduate student, Jamal, through the first months of his graduate experience on a campus that looks remarkable familiar. For documentation and further reading, see Some of these experiences could feel very familiar to some UWL instructors. 

Historical studies (just a few starting points)

  • Keevak, M. (2011). Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Omi, M., & Winant, Howard. (2014). Racial Formation in the United States (3rd ed.). Florence: Taylor and Francis. Updated edition to the classic text on how "races" come into existence, including a section on the distinction between "race" and "ethnicity" and why it matters.
  • HoSang, D., LaBennett, Oneka, & Pulido, Laura. (2012). Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century. Berkeley: University of California Press. A collection of essays that develop and critique Omi and Winant's exploration of racial formation.
  • Isenberg, N. (2016). White trash: the 400-year untold history of class in America.  New York, NY: Viking. Excellent study explaining how stereotypes about poor whites and people of color developed in relationship to one another.
  • Stryker, S. (2017). Transgender history : The roots of today's revolution (Second ed.). New York, NY: Seal Press.

Hoskins, D. (2018). Stereotypes and Implicit Assumptions. In Instructor's Guide to Inclusive Excellence. University of Wisconsin at La Crosse Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from