People cannot get enough of talking about unconscious bias. Many who speak of their commitment to true and deep diversity and inclusion are utterly enamored with unconscious bias training. It’s nonsense. Here’s why.
Sara Shahvisi and Hanna Naima McCloskey
People cannot get enough of talking about unconscious bias. Many organizations and individuals who speak of their commitment to true and deep diversity and inclusion are utterly enamored with unconscious bias training; seeming to see it as the silver bullet we’ve all been waiting for, *the* solution for racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, disablism and other oppressions.
It’s a nonsense. Here’s why:
1. It gets us off the hook
When we say our biases are unconscious — we are telling people that we should not be held accountable for them, because we didn’t mean it, because it’s unconscious and we can’t control it. We are basically saying “Whoopsy daisy!”. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card.
It’s funny because when something has bad outcomes we are really quick to explain it away as having nothing to do with us by saying we didn’t mean it — prioritizing our intention. But when something’s positive, we are generally super quick to be held responsible. No one has ever said “It was totally unconscious that I had a really profitable first quarter. You really shouldn’t let this outcome lead to any conclusions about my competency, ideas, or attitudes, this outcome is totally unconnected to me as a person”. This basically never happens! We totally want to claim it as all to do with us.
2. It ignores the role of power
Not all biases have the same impact. One of the key missing components in the useless unconscious bias framework is that it ignores a power relationship between the two parties.
Having a bias towards (or against!) people who like watching Love Island or who are cyclists is not the same as having a bias towards people who are from the same racial group as you — there is a different power relationship involved in these biases — and therefore, they need to be understood very differently too. When we talk about power in this context, we mean the way it is inscribed through history and in our institutions (media, criminal justice, businesses, education, health etc) and the knock-on that has for us interpersonally.
3. It doesn’t turbo-charge action
Spending time working out ways in which we respond to specific groups or individuals in the workplace is not entirely useless — but in and of itself, it will never be enough to create real change. For example, just because a person knows they are ‘biased’ against people who wear hijabs or disabled people, doesn’t mean they know how to change this.
What we need for real change is to go much deeper than looking at the manifestations of inequality and exclusion — we need to get to the causes. Only when we understand why and how ‘biases’ come to bear, can we start to understand what needs to change to rid our workplace of them.
4. It denies systems
When we focus on unconscious bias we are talking about individual actions and attitudes. However, inequality and exclusion are not simply constructed out of individuals doing and thinking things. It’s much much more complex than that. They are inhered in the systems, structures, processes, and practices of our organizations and society at large.
For example, if the mechanics of our recruitment process are racist (by which I mean that what we value, how we assess people, how we expect people to present themselves etc are based on racist norms and narratives), just knowing we have an individual racial ‘bias’ towards certain groups is surely not going to radically alter the outcomes of our recruitment process.
5. It invisibilities conscious ‘bias’
I rarely hear people speaking on diversity and inclusion panels or read LinkedIn articles on the ways in which homophobia, racism, sexism, transphobia, disablism, and classism are consciously furthered.
People are currently physically and verbally attacked for their race, faith, sexuality, gender identity, and more — on the streets of London — and Katie Hopkins, Nigel Farage, and Tommy Robinson continue to have considerable platforms in our society. The two are connected. In many ways, the likes of Katie Hopkins and co make acceptable other “lesser” behavior because “at least I’m not like them”. It allows some of us to distance our own behavior and the harm it causes because it isn’t as public, vulgar, or specific as others. How might we be more active in our pursuit of equity if we saw all our acts of harm on a spectrum? Is imperative therefore that we also talk about the conscious and active ways people enact and further deep inequity and exclusion.
6. It offers no urgency for change
We’ve spoken about the connotations of the word unconscious — but the term bias is also problematic in order to engender real change in our organizational cultures.
The word bias conjures up a leaning — rolls of the dice, simple preferences. It’s a safe, innocuous, and neutral term. In being so safe and sterilized — it does not capture in any way the myriad ways certain people suffer as a result of inequities and exclusion, every single day. And therefore, I worry, creates no urgency for change.