The day I realised I was probably an unconscious racist

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Recent problems with Covid, race and the economy have led to a certain degree of self-reflection in most of us. I was having a (socially distanced) lunch with some friends to celebrate a friend’s birthday and realised that I didn’t agree with some of what they were saying. They were adamant that they weren’t racist, that they ‘don’t see colour’, that the stereotype of middle class, middle aged, slightly privileged white people didn’t apply to them. The Insight that followed was that, despite the work I do, I was probably unconsciously racist too, due to my life experience and the perceptual lenses through which I see the world.

In a work call with a much-valued client, I found myself questioning how much understanding someone who works in D&I really has when their experience and world view is so unashamedly white and privileged. He is deeply committed to change and improvement of everyone’s lives and a keen supporter of ‘difference’(as am I by the way) but his personal experience of bias compared to what others have been through illustrated a paternalistic lack of understanding.

Neuroscience teaches us that unconsciously we all have bias. Whether it’s in the form of racism or any other categorization of ‘difference’, we all live our lives in ways that focus on our own experience, and often overlook or misunderstand other’s experiences. Whether its laughing at a show from 20 years ago which is no longer appropriate, or making a ‘joke’ about someone’s stereotype, most people do it to some degree (and this isn’t restricted to white people – its everyone and everywhere). When people ask ‘where are you from’ because they have a ‘foreign’ sounding name, we are guilty of what’s known as a microaggression. I sometimes struggle with overt political correctness/being categorized as ‘woke’ or not, but maybe the time has come to get serious about difference. Even when we think of the term ‘celebrate difference’, we need to be conscious of the assumptions at play. Difference to what? To middle class, middle aged white people presumably.

Existential philosophers tell us that that the role of the ‘other’ is very significant in discovering ‘the self’, knowing yourself is foundational to leadership as many great thinkers and leaders have expressed. Whilst Neuroscience tells us that stereotyping of others occurs at an unconscious level whether we are talking about gender, orientation, disability, ethnicity or any other descriptor of difference. It becomes even worse when we look at intersectionality, where there is more than one dimension of difference. The pools of successful role models are even smaller, and the social networks barely exist outside of social groups that exacerbate ‘in group’ and make everyone else ‘out group’ – something to be feared and not trusted. Our perceptions about the world are formed from our early years and continue to be reinforced.

Our beliefs reflect our perceptions and, whether we like it or not, create filters through which we see the world. These perceptions affect us personally, in our perceptions about others and in our decision making inside and outside of organisations. It’s time to focus on Inclusion rather than just Diversity and to take a very serious look at ourselves. We need to learn about and practice Growth Mindset behaviours.

To people reading this who resonate with the picture I painted at the start, that see themselves as less biased than others, who would say you don’t see colour or act according to stereotypes, you are just as biased – maybe just about different things. We don’t know what we don’t know because bias is unconscious. Just because we have a black friend, a gay colleague or are a female boss doesn’t automatically mean we get a free pass. We all have unconscious bias. It’s time to address it.

Neuroscientists know that it’s easier to create new neural wiring than to deconstruct old. It’s called neuroplasticity and we can all build new neural wiring at any age. The old term ‘what we focus on expands’ actually has some truth in it – the more we build and practice new habits, the better our behaviours will become.

Whilst I have faced bias myself, as a young woman in business in less aware times, I appreciate that being white and middle class has unlocked doors for me. I want to be consciously aware of others’ lived experience so that I don’t inadvertently contribute to perpetuating unbalance in our society and organisations.

Takeaways:

We are all unconsciously biased.

Learn about the experiences of people who are different to you. Regardless of your own experience or beliefs, you are living and working in a system which is unbalanced. If you are a leader in an organization look at processes you can improve to mitigate the effects of bias. Reflect on your own beliefs and challenge them.

With regard to racism, focusing on developing unconscious Inclusive habits is the way to go. We can build rapport, confidence and give choice to millions of people worldwide. Like going to the gym to build physical physique, we need to build new mental muscle around racism and other areas where we stereotype. All of us, all of the time.

Inclusion is the new normal.

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