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How to tackle hidden bias

by
26 November 2021

Understanding about the different ways that language is used is vital to challenging injustice, says Genelle Aldred

Alamy

Conscious bias: anti-immigrant and anti-Islam protests in Croydon in May 2017

Conscious bias: anti-immigrant and anti-Islam protests in Croydon in May 2017

OUR society has not yet reached a consensus on how to disagree well, and it’s tearing us apart. We have yet to agree about what to say when we disagree, or to understand the difference between disagreeing with others and holding them to account.

Terms such as “woke”, “privilege”, “diversity”, and “unconscious bias” have become loaded, and mean different things to different people: they might be explanations; they might be insults. In this binary world, how we understand these terms depends on which side of the fence we choose. So, how do we even begin to address the plentiful systemic injustices that hold so many back, in so many ways?

I believe that we begin by considering a shared understanding of language. For a start, we can no longer hide behind the excuse that prejudice or bias is unconscious.

We all have to be honest enough to admit that we have a problem — that we all feel tense, even fragile, around this conversation — and we have yet to find a solution so that we can get closer to one. Carrying on the way we are is not the long-term answer.

“Unconscious (or implicit) bias” is a frequently used term that has come to have different meanings for different people. Here is a definition from a psychology website:

“Implicit bias (also called ‘unconscious bias’) refers to attitudes and beliefs that occur outside of our conscious awareness and control. . . An implicit bias may run counter to a person’s conscious beliefs without them realising it.

“For example, it is possible to express explicit liking of a certain social group or approval of a certain action, while simultaneously being biased against that group or action on an unconscious level. Therefore, implicit biases and explicit biases might be different for the same person.

“It is important to understand that implicit biases can become an explicit bias. This occurs when you become consciously aware of the prejudices and beliefs you possess. That is, they surface in your conscious mind, leading you to choose whether to act on or against them.”

A common understanding of the language employed in the arena of social justice is required for things to change. Bias, unconscious or otherwise, is found not only in the usual suspects: it’s in all of us. If we truly care about the world becoming a more just place, we must examine ourselves for our own prejudices, which may not be the obvious or usual ones.

It’s not enough to name our blind spots or our biases and speak endlessly about all the ways in which they manifest, which is where most of us stop. True and lasting progress uses that only as a starting-point.

I’m not a big fan of telling people to do the work. It can sound obnoxious, and seems to assume that the people concerned have done no work. Instead, I’d say that there is work to do. We must do the work and keep working.

 

DIVIDE and conquer is an effective tactic. Togetherness, shared understanding, and common purpose precede progress. In the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, some people who speak a common language decide to build a structure so high that it “reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11.4).

God sees their plan and decides to disband the work because, if they were to achieve their goal, they would be too powerful — too godlike — and their hubris would know no limits: “nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” (v.6). God confuses their language so that they cannot communicate. The work stops and they are “scattered . . . over the face of the earth” (v.9), just as they didn’t want to be.

Divide and conquer is a successful tactic. Common understanding achieves great things. Promoting a shared vision is helped by having similar points of reference. A shared understanding of language and context is powerful for moving forwards.

Confusion, however, is what we currently have. Language that has myriad, mainly negative, meanings creates barriers rather than bridges. I use a word to express something, and you respond by using the same word, but we attach different meanings to it.

There can be no sensible conversation or way forwards until we gain an understanding of what we are talking about. We also have to acknowledge that the feelings evoked by an interpretation of a term such as “privilege” may prevent us from responding positively or with humility.

We must learn to examine honestly what we believe about ourselves and our place in the world, so that we can get to the truth. Just because we don’t associate ourselves with something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t apply to us. If we stop weaponising words, we can begin to get to the root of how they can help us to understand the issues.

Imagine if, when the HMT Empire Windrush came to the UK from the Caribbean, the contribution of Caribbean people to the war effort had been massively celebrated.

Imagine if there had been an avalanche of articles and news clips dedicated to thanking the new arrivals for coming to help to rebuild the country. How different the welcome would have been; how much better the integration. Many of the post-war demographic changes (immigration) happened before people were properly informed of all the facts. Could anyone ever be ready for such changes?

 

WE KNOW that stereotypes help us to sort out the world. They are tools for discerning who is a threat, who is not, and who belongs where. This is a throwback to the way our brains have developed. Nevertheless, thanks to science, data, and even anecdotal evidence, we know that these stereotypes are not necessarily true or helpful, despite many of us choosing to believe them for decades.

As a society, we are struggling to root out these long-held assumptions from our collective subconscious and replace them with informed, accurate ones. It is a hard task.

When social or demographic change affects society, the associated language and ideas also change, often because of the labels the media frequently use. We’ve seen plenty of linguistic transitions: we’ve moved from using phrases such as “melting pot” (“We’re all here together”) and “multicultural” (“We’re a lot of different people, living beside one another”) to using “diversity” (“We’re different together”) and “inclusion” (“We’re different but included”). The idea of implementing cultural intelligence during periods of cultural change, however, has not been one that we have thought through enough.

So far, the answer to bringing about smooth cultural change has been thought to be assimilation. When British people go abroad, however, assimilation is something that we tend to shy away from: we like to hear our language spoken and to eat familiar food. How, then, can we expect full assimilation from others?

No attempt was or has been made to look for original alternatives to assimilation. We need to seek a vision for those alternatives, because change requires some shape or form; some structure. In any relationship, one person cannot set all the terms, decide how the communication works, and what’s right and what’s wrong — that’s a dictatorship.

Even those who have been on the receiving end of injustice will be frustrated in their desire for change if they are not willing to compromise on how shared community spaces should look. But we have some way to go before we reach a consensus. For some, a foundation for reaching such a consensus involves rebuilding community relationships.

As new, diverse groups have moved in and out of communities, there has been little in the way of actively and effectively introducing different people into one another’s lives in a meaningful way.

Affirming welcomes don’t just happen. When migrants move into an area, we should ask important questions that identify each of them as more than just members of a faceless group. Where are they from? (Not just the country: the region, city, town, or village, too.) What did they do? Were they doctors, nurses, or office workers? Who’s in the family? Children? What are their ages? What do they want to be when they grow up?

These human beings are more than just a nameless group of people. We forget that everyone has hopes and dreams, and that most refugees haven’t fled their homes just to scrape by on handouts and menial jobs at the bottom rung of society.

They don’t tend to leave loved ones and familiarity, and risk their lives in leaky dinghies, merely to eke out an existence in a hostile new country; they often dream of contributing by working hard, starting businesses, and buying properties, if the conditions are right.

Often, the cold welcome doesn’t allow people time to integrate. Our society requires quick assimilation: it doesn’t want to wait. Consider how much time we take to get to know and understand other people who share our spaces. When we’re surrounded by those we can’t comprehend, we feel vulnerable; it can be terrifying.

Tolerance can work only for so long; it doesn’t take too much to undermine it and make newcomers shrink back to what they know. We cannot continue to chalk up the excuse of failing — or even refusing — to know one another to “unconscious bias”. When we are aware of our bias, it has become conscious, and even an intentional way of thinking about others.

 

This is an extract from Communicate for Change: Creating justice in a world of bias by Genelle Aldred, published by SPCK at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.69) 978-0-28108-557-6.

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