It’s not unconscious bias, it’s what we do with it that matters


Like many who’ve worked as people managers, I had the benefit of being trained in dealing with unconscious bias as part of my job.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve been thinking a lot about it again since George Floyd’s brutal murder and the rise of Black Lives Matter.

I thought it might be worth sharing some of these thoughts for anyone who, like me, struggles with their own unconscious bias sometimes.

Unconscious bias is what drives the way we often pigeon-hole and judge situations and people without even thinking about it. It comes from how we are conditioned by all our  experiences, and in some respects it’s essential to how we deal with the world.

If you’ve watched Jaws a dozen times, you’re likely to have an unconscious bias aigainst sharks, even though you know they’re actually an endangered species; you may even be aware that vending machines kill more people every year in the USA than sharks do.

On the other hand, if there’s a shark swimming straight towards you, it’s probably best that your unconscious bias wins.

But unconscious bias also plays a big part in perpetuating racism and the other chronic injustices which blight our world.

I’m no expert, but I do know I’ve struggled with how to deal with unconscious bias in myself, and I get the sense I’m not alone.

For me, it helps at least to try and take a step back to understand unconscious bias and how it works, and I hope sharing some of this thinking might help others.

More importantly, I’m convinced that we need to manage unconscious bias and its effects objectively to move the fight against racism on from conflict to constructive engagement.

We can’t help it   

To begin with the obvious, we can’t help having unconscious bias, any more than we can help breathing. We can consciously alter our behaviour to overcome it, which is a good thing, but it doesn’t make it go away.

For instance, for some reason I seem to have built up a strong unconscious bias against the incumbent US President as at August 2020.

If I hear ‘President Trump has announced……’  my hackles are already rising before I hear what he’s said.

That’s a fairly easy one to understand and deal with – I’m a middle-class educated liberal, and there’s plenty of fuel out there to feed that particular bias.

Not so easy is the unconscious bias that’s built up from years of me watching TV, films and news reports mostly portraying young black men in dark-windowed BMWs as criminals.

I know that this unconscious bias is wrong and corrosive, but it’s still there somewhere, and I can’t directly change the years of social conditioning which put it there.

Just feeling guilty about this kind of unconscious bias doesn’t achieve anything. Recognising it, making sure it doesn’t influence behaviour, and working to change the conditioning which creates it is what makes the difference.

It makes us feel comfortable       

It’s easy to let our unconscious bias drive our behaviour.

Acting on our unconscious bias makes us comfortable, particularly when we’re in a group who share that bias. Things which reinforce our bias make us more comfortable, things which challenge it make us uncomfortable.

To take an example at (I hope) the less offensive end of the spectrum, let’s consider BMW drivers.

With apologies to all the responsible, social-minded people out there who happen to drive a BMW, I admit I share the popular unconscious bias that BMW drivers don’t use indicators.

When I see a BMW driver not using their indicators, I might be annoyed, but it also makes me feel a bit smug because it reinforces my unconscious bias.

When I see a BMW driver acting responsibly, as I often do, I can’t help feeling a twinge of disappointment that my unconscious bias is being challenged.

It’s destructive

Unconscious bias is destructive because it gets in the way of us doing the right thing. The BMW driver example may seem relatively innocuous, but it wouldn’t be if I was on the jury in the trial of a BMW driver accused of causing death by dangerous driving. I’d need to make a conscious effort to make sure my bias didn’t influence my judgement.

Of course, unconscious bias towards whole social groups – women, people of colour, particular religious beliefs or sexual orientations – is much more dangerous. It pollutes our humanity and leads us to treat people unjustly, often without even noticing it.

That’s why we all need to be able to recognise our unconscious bias and manage it. There are plenty of books and training courses to help, but simply being prepared to think about it and challenge it is a positive step.

It loves social media  

Our online world loves unconscious bias.

Social media and partisan politics make it easier and more comfortable for us to stereotype and score points rather than engage in rational debate.

This ‘confirmation bias’ has been recognised for years, but it’s never been more influential. Twitter in particular is great at making us feel better by plumping up our prejudices.

People say or post things which do nothing but confirm and strengthen existing biases. They may not do it consciously, it’s just the comfortable, dangerous and powerful pull of unconscious bias.

The untrue posts on social media which suggested that the policeman who knelt on George Floyd’s neck was trained by the Israeli secret service weren’t antisemitic in themselves, but they could achieve nothing except to bolster people’s existing comfortable antisemitic bias.

We can’t stop this kind of thing being said, and we need to protect the right to say it. What we can do is to recognise it and make sure it doesn’t feed our own unconscious bias, no matter how comfortable and right it feels.

It can be easily exploited

Throughout history, people have exploited people’s unconscious bias for their own personal or political purposes.

If you have power, it’s easy to foster unconscious bias. As long as you have no scruples about exploiting a weaker social group, it always pays to encourage unconscious bias against them.

You just spread the word that they are mentally and morally inferior, dangerous, genetically predisposed to servility, and so on.

This makes their exploitation more palatable for everyone who benefits from it, and  helps foster the social conditions which will keep them in their place and perpetuate the prejudice against them.

Forcing people into poverty and taking away their voice can too easily push them towards behaviours which reinforce prejudice; crime, violence, drug abuse, illegal migration and the rest. It’s a vicious cycle which has continued for many black people long after the end of direct exploitation.

Historical images of apparently enslaved Irish people have been used to support an argument that slavery was not purely an issue of colour.

Even if these pictures had given a true picture (which they didn’t), they would have been irrelevant. While Ireland still has challenges with religious prejudice, Irish people clearly don’t face the same historical legacy of structural prejudice as slavery has left the black community.

Even if you don’t have direct power, you can still make political capital by scapegoating another group for your problems and fostering bias against them, from promoting the idea that immigrants are stealing your jobs, to blaming your country’s ills on a communist or Jewish conspiracy.

Sometimes it’s justified…

Unconscious bias works both ways.

If you are on the receiving end of systematic prejudice and oppression, you develop justified unconscious bias against your oppressor.

This can be valuable. Justified unconscious bias gives you the anger which you need to fight back when all else fails; as Martin Luther King said, ‘a riot is the language of the unheard’.

Justified unconscious bias should be more powerful than the unjustified kind because it is morally right.

Unconscious bias against white privilege is morally defensible because of what white people have done historically to deserve it, in a way that bias against disadvantaged people of colour can never be.

..but still destructive

You need justified bias against your enemy when you’re fighting a war, but it becomes destructive when you come to build the peace.

After World War I, many argue it was lingering bias against Germany which drove the punitive peace settlement that sowed the seeds for World War II.

After World War II, European countries recognised the need to avoid falling into the same situation again, so they put aside their wartime enmities and prejudices and created the foundation for what became the European Union.

Yet some of that bias remained. For example, it’s hard to shake the thought that the insular ‘Bulldog Spirit’ which underpinned the UK war effort may have influenced the UK decision to leave the EU.

Regardless of the rational arguments on either side, we should be nervous of any decision where unconscious bias plays a part.

It’s hard to change

Nelson Mandela fought apartheid with violence because at the time it was the only language that could be heard.

When apartheid ended, he became a champion for reconciliation, collaborating with his former oppressors to build a new South Africa

There would have been every justification for seeking retribution from white South Africans for the crimes of Apartheid, yet Mandela recognised that it was time to move on and collaborate for all South Africa’s people.

In 2003, after giving up the presidency, Mandela attended the launch of the Mandela Rhodes foundation, named jointly for him and Cecil Rhodes, whose statue in Oxford is one of those targeted by Black Lives Matter.

Mandela referred to Rhodes in his speech  as “the imperialist so-called ‘robber baron’ from the British colonial period”, before looking to Rhodes’ portrait and saying ‘I guess you and I need to work together now.’

It’s an uncomfortable idea for our unconscious bias, having a hero of the fight against racism associate himself with a colonialist villain. I guess it was difficult for Mandela too, but I believe it reflects his greatness that he was able to recognise the crimes of the past yet still move beyond them.

Lack of landmarks makes it harder

The ending of apartheid gave Mandela and South Africa the opportunity to move forward, and even then it was hard enough building a new South Africa for all its people.

We have no such landmark event in today’s fight against racism.

The abolition of slavery, even the US Civil Rights Act, clearly didn’t create enough of the necessary momentum for change, otherwise we wouldn’t be mourning George Floyd and the other victims of racism today.

If we saw the leaders of the nations responsible for historical black oppression standing together, apologising to all black people and pledging a fresh commitment to equal rights for all races, it would be a start.

A few more monuments to slavery and statues of those who stood against it, and teaching the whole picture in schools would help too.

Sadly, none of that seems too likely with our current set of leaders.

In the absence of such landmarks, smaller symbolic events can still help if we respond to them in the right way.

Tearing down the statue of a slave trader doesn’t directly help address today’s racism, but it’s worthwhile if it stops black people feeling uncomfortable each time they pass that spot, and if black and white people alike recognise it as part of a necessary transition from oppression and anger to reconciliation and collaboration.

Marc Quinn, the artist who created a sculpture of BLM protestor Jen Reid to occupy the plinth vacated by Edward Colston’s statue, said a bundle when he said the power of the new statue was that it ‘renewed the conversation’ and that he saw its importance as transient. Progress comes from recognising wrongs and moving on.

We have to acknowledge it and get past it to come together

Personally, I sometimes have to get past my unconscious bias when it comes to dealing with justified expressions of black anger against white privilege.

When it was suggested that Nelson’s statue be removed from Trafalgar Square because of his association with the slave trade, my knee-jerk reaction was sadness and some anger.

Thinking about it, I realised that I wasn’t angry because I particularly admire Nelson or would see this as a betrayal of our British heritage, it’s just that Nelson’s Column has always been part of my image of London.

That’s not a trivial reason, but it doesn’t justify demonising people who are uncomfortable about commemorating our colonial past with a big column in the middle of our capital city.

We need to confront these complexities with understanding and respect for each other if we want to avoid a vicious cycle of growing bias and the anger it breeds, both justified and unjustified.

Martin Luther King identified one stage in this cycle when he talked about riots as the language of the unheard.

Ignoring social injustice breeds protest, failing to listen to peaceful protest breeds riots, forcible suppression of riots breeds terrorism, and so on.

I hope the voices of #Black Lives Matter stay strong until they are properly heard and we achieve more than yet another round of inquiries and task forces and the removal of a couple of statues.

If we continue to let our unconscious bias drive our actions, whether it’s denying black anger, stereotyping disadvantaged young black people as likely criminals or using ‘white privilege’ as a slur, I fear we will keep finding ourselves in the same place as we are now.  For the sake of George Floyd and everyone who has suffered through racism, I hope we can all rise above our unconscious bias to make sure that doesn’t happen.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s