Racism vs racial prejudice: on the normalisation of (un)conscious bias

There is a danger with the latest figures on racial prejudice in Britain that we understate the scope and nature of prejudice.

Asiya Islam
1 June 2014

Last week was almost all bad news for progressive Britain – the right wing anti-immigrant UKIP made gains in local and European Parliament elections and the latest British Social Attitudes survey by NatCen revealed that racial prejudice is on the rise in Britain with 30% of the respondents self-declaring to be “very or a little racially prejudiced”. The NatCen graph charting the change in racial prejudice in Britain is interesting – 30 years ago, as many as 36% of the respondents said they are racially prejudiced, the proportion then fell to its lowest to 25% in 2000 and 2001, rose again in 2010 to 37% (the highest recorded levels) and now stands at 30%.

During the last three decades, a lot has happened that could have influenced these responses – the flow of immigrants and the rise of Tories in the 1980s, the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001, the recession which started out in 2009, the golden glow of multicultural Britain during the 2012 Olympics and so on. While it’s not statistically possible to establish causation between these factors and the responses, it is nevertheless interesting to examine more carefully the question asked in the NatCen survey and the related discourse on diversity.

Although the Guardian proclaimed “Racism on rise in Britain” in a front page splash after obtaining these statistics from NatCen, and other publications followed suit, it is important to note that the question put to the respondents of the British Social Attitudes survey was – “Would you describe yourself as very prejudiced/a little prejudiced against people of other races?” The results have combined the “very prejudiced” and the “a little prejudiced” categories. More importantly, the question was not – “Would you describe yourself as very or a little racist?” or even “Would you think it justifiable to discriminate against people of other races?”

This distinction is significant in the context of the increased focus on ‘unconscious bias’, particularly in workplaces. The Equality Challenge Unit defines ‘unconscious bias’ as “a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.”

The underlying idea behind the concept of unconscious bias is that all of us are biased and acknowledging and checking our biases is useful to avoid discrimination. Although a helpful idea, it has, to a certain extent, played a role in normalising bias. We have landed in a situation where “I’m not racist, I have black friends,” seems to have been replaced by “Of course, I’m prejudiced against people of other races. Who isn’t?” or “I don’t dislike black people, I just prefer white people.” This forms the crux of the difference between racial prejudice and racism and, similarly, gender prejudice and sexism.

Google’s first diversity report, released earlier today, revealed that of the company’s employees, only 30% are women and 2% are black. Further, only 21% of leadership positions are held by women. Tina Nunno, a vice-president and fellow at Gartner – a research firm which recently released a report on women in technology – said, “I don’t believe this bias towards men is conscious. Most people simply don’t say they don’t want to work with a woman, it’s just that on some unconscious level there’s a detrimental lean in the direction of men.” And she is partly right – we probably would have had a very low proportion of respondents self-declaring to be racists. After all, admission of unconscious bias carries a lot less weight as compared to declaration of racism. But whether such bias is ‘unconscious’, which we are not aware of, is debatable. And so is the implication that racism is on the rise based on claims of ‘racial prejudice’.

The argument is not so much that these 30% people who are racially prejudiced may not be racist but that racism is much more than just one third of the population admitting their (un)conscious bias. Racism is only 2% of Google’s employees and only 0.4% of UK’s professors being black. It is also the higher likelihood of black and Asian people being stopped and searched by the police and of young black men being unemployed as compared to their white counterparts. Yet, we’ve arrived in a place where we’d rather assign blame to individuals – look at these 30%, mostly old white men involved in manual labour, most probably never been to university, being so outrageously racist – than acknowledge institutional and systematic racism.

And, although the idea of checking one’s unconscious bias started out with the right intention, it has become reduced to a similar individualist approach whereby the process of acknowledging one’s bias is an adequate corrective measure. This risk has carried through to the NatCen British Social Attitudes Survey – it is quite likely that those who claimed to be very or a little racially prejudiced will jump out of their skins if branded racists or even perpetrators of racism. (Even Nigel Farage says he and his party are not racist.) Their response, in all likelihood, is more indicative of “Yes, I’m biased, so what?” attitude. This is not to say that prejudice based on race is not racism – of course it is – but let’s not forget it’s a lot more than numbers scattered across the country.

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