This blog explores the notion of ‘breaking the bias’ from the perspective of a Black woman. I’ll focus on bias in the workplace based on my research and drawing on my personal experience. The aim is to consider what bias is, how it manifests itself, and how we can face it head on, accept that it exists, and lessen the negative consequences of bias which are ubiquitous in our workplaces.
What is bias?
First, what do we mean by ‘bias’? We are all guilty of bias because it is part of the human condition. You forge your own identity by contrasting yourself with the Other, a person or people who are different from you. You have a strong sense of belonging to a range of groups with shared characteristics such as appearance, class, education and region of origin. You may also share the same interests.
‘Un’conscious bias and Blackness
Your bias may be ‘un’conscious, but that does not mean that it is not strong. Although race is an unstable concept, your racial markers are an important part of your identity and therefore lead to bias. If you are White, you are not Black. The more the racial marker of the Other differs from yours, the stronger your bias is likely to be. So dark Black skin, Afro curly hair and other stereotypical racial markers will differ more from the White norm and so attract more profound bias.
Imagine an interview panel. You are the only Black panellist. All the interviewees are White British or White European. You find it difficult to focus on the interviewees’ responses, especially those who do not speak standard English. You have an internal bias against what you find you regard as less than perfect pronunciation of the English language. Where did this come from? You remember how your parents were always emphasising that you needed to speak properly and act like a ‘lady’. They wanted you to assimilate into White middle class society. People find themselves drawn towards the person who sounds more like themselves. When an interviewee sounds more like the panel members, they are likely to be appointed. The Others are considered less suited to the role they have applied for despite appropriate qualifications and experience.
Physical appearance and bias
Physical appearance is also very important. A Black person’s hair should ideally adhere to European concepts of acceptable hair styles. Black women have to grapple with bias from childhood to adulthood if they do not keep their hair ‘under control’. Black pupils are excluded because of their hair. This is racist and unlawful. When Black women reach the workplace, their hair can become the focus, attracting unwelcome comments and requests such as “Can I touch it?”. Hair cannot be left natural. There is an unwritten code that ‘Afro’ hair needs to be tamed because otherwise it looks ‘rather wild’.
White privilege and acting white
Such strictures originate in white privilege. The norm is white, so society is designed around White people and their characteristics. People of colour must navigate their way carefully, avoiding behaviours which might be considered ‘loud’ to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Black women and girls at school, university, and in the workplace feel obliged to act white to blend in as far as possible to become more acceptable. Nevertheless, Black women are not seen to conform to traditional feminine tropes of ‘beauty, grace, elegance, and good social manners’.
The emotional burden of intersectional discrimination
Constantly acting white is an enormous strain. Black women are like actors who never leave the stage. They risk losing sight of their authentic selves. They do not like to complain; Hancock (2020) and Showunmi and Tomlin (2022) have shown that many suffer in silence as they experience sophisticated and everyday racism which results in indirect and direct discrimination, both as women and as Black women. Different forms of discrimination interact, primarily on grounds of race, sex and class. This intersectional discrimination has a detrimental impact on the life chances of Black women and leads to an emotional burden which risks damaging their mental health. It is vital to raise awareness of intersectionality as it enables us to identify multiple factors of disadvantage.
Strategies to break the bias
Recognising that bias is a fundamental human characteristic is the first step towards ‘breaking the bias’. A summary of proactive strategies adapted from Showunmi and Tomlin 2022 follows. They are designed to support Black women, but all advocates for social justice can encourage their use.
Asking critical questions can help illuminate racist discourse and actions. Questioning allows us to confront racism. Direct questions require focused responses which can expose racist actions. Effective questions can help to ‘break the bias’ by triggering discussion and reflection.
- Why do you believe that my race makes me inferior to you?
- Can you repeat what you just said slowly?
- Do you hear what you are saying?
- What do you hope to achieve from this racist behaviour?
It is taxing to be Black in white society. Awareness of how we communicate is crucial. Empowering behaviours sometimes require:
1. Ignoring racism
2. Responding with dignity
3. Requesting a private conversation
4. Providing resources for learning about racial realities.
Caring and self-care
Self-care is essential to navigating everyday racism. The weight of racial stress is overwhelming and most Black people are not aware of its damaging impact on their emotional and mental health. It is important to find an effective outlet to release anger and frustration.
1. Keep a journal
2. Discuss how you feel with your partner, friends, counsellor, or religious leader
3. Meditate to maintain a calm and measured disposition
4. Join a support group
This blog provides food for thought. I have welcomed the opportunity to write it and I hope colleagues will be able to act and #BreakTheBias.
Dr Victoria Showunmi is an advocate for social justice in society, her research interests include gender race identity in the context of 1) gender and leadership and 2) Black women's and girl’s experience and wellbeing.
Taking place on 7-8 April in person and online, Diversity Interventions 2022 is an international conference hosted and co-convened by the University of Oxford, Advance HE, and Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) Limited.
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