We’re all racially biased

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Picture source: Wikipedia

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m racially biased. Before your jaw drops, I’d like to add that you are too.

That’s the funny thing about unconscious bias. It’s unconscious. If we weren’t biased, our brains would frazzle from the sensory load we would need to fully process all the 35,000 decisions we make each day. Our brains are designed to make snap decisions based on partial information. This programming doesn’t make us bad people.

The more we are each aware of this fact, the more we can all move forward together to tackle the issues it causes.

There are so many ways that bias can occur. Just two examples of the many that can occur in a job selection context include similar-to-me effect and confirmatory information seeking.

One industry that tries hard to tackle this bias is in UK policing. Training for job selection involves a model called ORCE (short for Observe Record Classify Evaluate). An interviewer or assessor is trained to note everything that a candidate says before making absolutely any judgement. It’s easier said than done. It’s a skill that develops with shared reflective practice. So, we need to check in with others. A panel of interviewers has to get comfortable challenging each other’s evaluations of candidates.

After watching a number of these interview panel discussions, I find that if it gets a bit feisty, people are doing their job. Panels that quickly agree or defer to a panel chair make me nervous. Nobody can pick up everything that is covered in an interview. The role of the panel chair is to facilitate an evidence-based discussion, not lead on decision making. Overall, there is a lot that goes into a well-designed selection process to reduce bias.

Met Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu
Picture source: Daily Mail

It’s a thorough process in UK policing. I’m not saying policing has racial bias sorted just because it has thoroughly designed some selection processes. Met Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu recently articulately described the ongoing issues he has experienced in his career. A revised selection process certainly does not change a culture alone.

Even with well-designed selection processes in place, there is still a much more challenging and deep-seated bias to address that affects all our industries. That is something called prototyping. This is where there is judged to be an ideal ‘type’ for a job. Selection criteria are often based on previous role holders and social norms. It’s a challenging bias because it is hard to crack through training people or designing a better selection process.

It lies deep in our societal fabric and we are unconsciously biased by influences that seem beyond our control.  This is what I mean when I conclude that we’re all racially biased.

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock
Picture source: Independent

This bias is why it matters who is placed on the plinths on our streets, in our workplaces and schools. Although it’s fantastic that we do celebrate civil rights activists, this still doesn’t come anywhere near to recognising who we see as a typical leader in our day to day schools and workplaces.

I believe it’s vital that we become more socially articulate about people from different races for their work or social achievements. Let’s look to the stories of people like astronomer Maggie Aderin-Pocock, architect Zaha Hadid, and business leaders like Magnus Djaba at Saatchi and Saatchi, Rakesh Kapoor at Reckett Benickiser, Sir Harpal Kumar at Cancer Research UK, Perminder Mann at Bonnier, Ivan Menezes at Diageo, Karamjit Singh at Leicester NHS and Sharon White at Ofcom. And footballer-turned-campaigner, Marcus Rashford.

Let’s celebrate what they are achieving and how they achieve it. Let’s absorb their stories into our discourse about leaders. Let’s move beyond the story of Rosa Parks (still, well done her) and teach about these people in school. Actually, lets teach about all sorts of leaders in school.

This way, our prototyping bias changes. It takes a lot of ongoing conscious effort to learn to become unconsciously competent at addressing the biases in our brain’s programming. Step one is admitting the bias is there.

If you want to reflect on this topic more, I thoroughly recommend a TED talk by Valarie Alexander about How to Outsmart your Unconscious Bias.