Unconscious bias is at the heart of much racism, where people who genuinely believe they do not identify with racist practices are still unconsciously skewed in their perceptions of ‘the other’.
Unconscious biases are ingrained stereotypes that impact our thinking, behaviour and decisions.
Getting to the heart of these biases is essential if we are to see an end to systemic racism.
Of course, overt racism should be met with the disdain and full opposition it deserves, but unconscious bias is less easy to detect – and consequently in many ways harder to tackle – for both parties.
Racism, and bias in general, can take many forms. In the workplace, this can range from looking down on someone because of where they come from, their age or weight; excluding a colleague or client because of their religion, language, ethnicity, or gender; to simply being too afraid to speak out when and where you recognize any form of injustice being practised consciously or unconsciously. As Sandra Maphoto, Talent Acquisition Specialist at Dynamic Talent, puts it, “If you are not taking a stand or acting against racism, directly or indirectly, you might as well be racist.”
How can companies initiate change?
A zero-tolerance policy for overt racism and visible bias is a good start.
Companies also need to actively create a culture of diversity and inclusion that fosters the promotion of racial literacy. For this to happen, it is essential to develop an environment that enables groups of diverse employees to openly discuss bias in detail, where own experiences are shared in a moderated setting. This will also allow covert biases to surface.
Some people might find it more difficult than others to be proactively anti-racist. Yet only through creating awareness can we create a truly inclusive and diverse society and root out unconscious racist behaviour and habits.
Phumelele Ndlovu, Talent Specialist at Dynamic Talent, believes that we need to educate our colleagues on passive behaviour and racial “blind spots”.
“Firstly, I would ask the person to elaborate on the point they are making, so that I make sure I do not misunderstand them. Then, I discuss with them how their comment can be perceived as racist, or why it is racist.” This approach does have the potential to blow up, which is why moderated discussion sessions are particularly important.
Ibram X. Kendi, American scholar and author of ‘How to Be an Anti-Racist’, is of the opinion the only way to initiate sustainable change is through becoming part of organized anti-racism. Through such organizations, formal practises can be introduced into systems to further and maintain open discussion and education on the subject. In South Africa, companies can look to join organizations such as ARNSA – the Anti-Racism Network of South Africa, established by the Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela Foundations in 2015, with the aim of providing resources, guidance and support for furthering inclusive practises.
The drawback of bias in recruitment
As a recruiter, unconscious bias has a devastating impact. The use of diverse interview panels in the selection process goes some way to counter biased attitudes, along with the deployment of scientific recruitment approaches.
“One of the greatest dangers of unconscious bias in recruitment is losing out on great talent,” says Maphoto, who has been involved in developing Unconscious Bias in Recruitment courses for Dynamic Talent. “The first step is to make the unconscious, conscious.”
The unpacking of the various forms of bias in recruitment during these training sessions demonstrates how to counter and address this sensitive issue. “We discuss in detail the types of bias, and attendees also take a moment to reflect on their own experiences being on the receiving end of unconscious bias, how it made them feel and how they recovered from that. We also looked at decisive moments in the recruitment process where our recruiters experienced any type of bias.”
Both white and black people have a lot to unlearn in terms of how they judge ‘the other’ and themselves. As Kendi puts it, “Being an anti-racist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.” Indeed, this is true for any form of personal growth.
Although it might sometimes feel like an impossible task, through open discussion, bias can be attended to and overcome. True diversity and inclusion can only be achieved by looking beyond bias and self-interest; to realise we are stronger together through learning from each other and leaning on each other’s strengths.