Welcome to lesson 2 of How to Build Racial Inclusivity in Your Workplace. In this lesson, we'll explore the concepts of unconscious bias and structural racism.
The human brain is an efficient cognitive machine – taking shortcuts wherever it can to enable quick decision-making. While this may have conveyed humans with certain evolutionary benefits such as threat detection in the wild, in the modern world, it predisposes us to make decisions that are prejudiced or, even worse, discriminatory. Unconscious bias, according to a report by the Royal Society, is when we make judgements or decisions on the basis of our prior experience, our own personal deep-seated thought patterns, assumptions, or interpretations, and we are not aware that we are doing it.
What does this mean in practice? As an example, a white person may have a tendency to make more favourable assumptions about other white people than they do about those who are not white. Or an Asian person may have a tendency to make more favourable assumptions about other Asian people than they do about those who are not Asian. However, this is complicated by the fact that people tend to have a preference for groups who hold power. So it could be possible, for example, for an Asian person to make more favourable assumptions about white people – who have historically held significant power in Western and other countries – than they do about non-white people.
Let's be clear – the fact that these biases are unconscious does not let us off the hook. It simply means that we need to take the time to think more consciously – particularly when engaging with people who are different from us and/or have less power than us. What assumptions are we making about them? What past messaging or experiences do we associate with this person's identity? Why do we feel comfortable around this person? Why do we feel uncomfortable around this person? The more we can constructively challenge our own snap judgements about other people, the greater chance we have of overcoming our unconscious biases and making fairer decisions. Like who we decide to hire. Or who we decide to collaborate with. Or who we choose as a supplier.
Unconscious bias can be considered a micro-level barrier for ethnic minorities, i.e., the barrier they face at the individual level. The macro-level barrier, i.e., the barrier they face at the societal level, is structural racism. According to The Aspen Institute, structural racism is a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. Structural racism means that ethnic minorities are "othered" in every area of life – whether that be in politics, popular culture, healthcare, academia, and indeed the economy. This has accumulated over the course of centuries and is deeply embedded in our social apparatus. It is evidenced in the various disparities between ethnic minorities and white people in health, education, criminal justice, housing, and employment.
By tackling our unconscious biases and codifying that in the workplace policy, practices and culture, we can begin tackling the economic arm of structural racism.
Unconscious bias and structural racism go hand-in-hand, and it's important to understand both when seeking to create a more racially inclusive workplace. We are tackling issues that are centuries old and well ingrained into society as a whole. Moreover, we are all cognitively predisposed to prejudiced thinking. Nevertheless, by actively choosing to be more inclusive of ethnic minorities in the workplace, we can begin to make real progress.
To recap – unconscious bias is when we make judgements or decisions on the basis of our prior experience, our own personal deep-seated thought patterns, assumptions, or interpretations, and we are not aware that we are doing it. We can address this by making more conscious decisions when dealing with people who are different from us. Structural racism, on the other hand, is a system in which public policies, institutional practices, cultural representations, and other norms work in various, often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity. By tackling our unconscious biases in the workplace, we can begin to address the economic element of structural racism and help make the world at least a slightly fairer place for ethnic minorities.
I want to take this opportunity to reassure you that it's completely normal to find the contents of this lesson difficult to process emotionally. Unconscious bias and structural racism are profound and disturbing concepts that you may not have encountered, or even been aware of, until now. Furthermore, you may have been taught during your formative years that the world is a fundamentally fair place where personal life outcomes are a function of hard work and good decision-making. Consequently, you may feel some resistance to these concepts, or even a sense of guilt. Again these are normal responses, and I encourage you to be compassionate towards yourself on this. The fact that you're following this course means that you are motivated to make your workplace more inclusive of ethnic minority employees, so you can take strength from that. You want to be part of the solution, and the following lessons will show you what that solution can look like in practice.
In the next lesson, we will explore the role of allies in helping create a racially inclusive workplace. Thank you for listening, and I'll speak to you again in lesson 3.