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I recently met someone who knew me when I was a child. He told me that, when I was about three, I went with my mother to visit a friend where there was also a black person. As this was in Sussex in the early 50s, there were not many black people in the population. When I got home, I described this person as being ‘funny looking.’ My mother immediately said, ‘but he was a very nice man, a very nice man’. No doubt I quickly realised that, although he was ‘funny looking’ to my eye, as I had never seen anyone who looked like that before, it was not something I should remark on. Experiences like these are part of my make up. They are structured into the complex web of my attitudes to the world. Certainly I could have been given a much worse message, but this is probably one of the things that has given me a certain tension around a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ with black people, a lack of ease. My mother’s message to me conveyed that, although black people should be talked about respectfully, they were nevertheless, ‘not like us.’ She wouldn’t have made such a big point of saying how nice a white man we met was.
So, could this be an example of how unconscious biases are formed? The term ‘unconscious bias’ has recently become a much-used term. It describes an attitude of mind that is held without prior thought. It is not a point of view that has been arrived at after due consideration, but one that is held automatically as ‘just the way things are.’ Unconscious bias is not something that is only carried by certain unthoughtful people. We all have unconscious biases and the best we can do is learn to recognise them.
I don’t know how much the story of my first encounter with a black person has contributed to the unconscious biases I hold. A myriad of different subtle messages will have been given to me in my childhood and reinforced throughout my life. Luckily, all is not lost. Messages and experiences that contradict our biases will have an effect over time, but we cannot just think our way out of them. They are not held by the thinking brain although rational thinking over time can help.
So how are unconscious biases formed? We are not talking here of just having a biased point of view. We are talking of unconscious bias, one of which we are unaware as it is held unconsciously. So, what does ‘unconscious’ mean in this context? For Freud, the unconscious was formed of illicit desires which have been repressed, thus becoming unconscious. While we might make a case for biases becoming unconscious because certain unwelcome thoughts have become repressed, I think the mechanism by which bias is rendered unconscious is even more fundamental.
We all grow up within a culture – of our family, our community, our nation etc. Certain attitudes are inevitably held within this culture and passed to us as we grow up, from when we were very small. As infants we carefully watch our parents for indications of what is allowable, or dangerous, or what we should approve or disprove of. These signs can be very subtle, like my example above.
Our attitudes to race (and everything else) is deeply held within the structure of our culture and our expression and experience of it.
It is not easy to reveal these unconscious attitudes and biases, and even more difficult to change them. However, they lose their power once they are revealed and we no longer need to be in their grip.