It’s Saturday morning and I’m walking down a supermarket aisle feeling sleepy, searching for doughnuts. My jeans pocket vibrates so I reach down for my phone without thinking when I become aware of a presence. A security guard looms behind me, looking first at my face, then at my hand in my pocket. I glance up, and feel a coldness seep through my chest as I make eye contact. This person thinks I am stealing. They are so certain of it that they have decided to follow me as I walk towards the exit. On my way out, I spot the doughnuts, but I’m not hungry anymore.
As a person of colour and an ‘alternative’ dresser I am routinely followed around the supermarket by security because of how I look. This is known as unconscious (or implicit) bias: an instinctive reaction to a person or situation that comes from learned stereotypes. Unconscious biases are formed by social stereotypes we have learned and inherited. They are a symptom of years of overt and less overt behaviours and teachings about certain people or groups. Whilst the security guard in the supermarket may consciously think that they treat black people as they would a white person, they have systematically been conditioned to think that because I’m black that I am more likely to shoplift.
Unconscious bias affects everybody, and targets oppressed groups. Because I am frequently negatively impacted by others’ unconscious biases, it’s sometimes easy for me to forget that I am also susceptible to having my own. Sometimes these could be argued to be ‘positive’; I notice myself listening to more and understanding LGBTQ people and people of colour because I am a part of those communities.
But often they are negative. When I was 11, my mum told me that the two men who lived on our road, Chris and Derek, were a couple. I immediately said “Ew!” because I had so far only been exposed to the negative connotations of what it meant to be gay. When my mum asked me why I responded that way, I didn’t have an answer. I had never consciously thought that gay people themselves were wrong or bad, I had just been taught that by the world around me.
My mum didn’t tell me off for saying “ew” or lecture me, she just said that she didn’t think it was gross. By the end of the day, I had totally reassessed what it meant for people to be gay. Sometimes, fighting unconscious bias is as simple as questioning it. Because my mum questioned my response, and gently voiced her difference of opinion, I learnt that there were opinions other than the ones I had heard at school.
So, when I was followed around on a trip to the supermarket recently, I asked the security guard if he would help me look for the hot chocolate powder. He did. My approach meant that when I went back later that day, I was not followed. Whilst it should never have been up to me to change this man’s assumption, it was an effective method of making him assess his treatment of me.
Unconscious bias negatively affects me as well as other people from marginalised groups when going about our day-to-day lives. While I’m uncomfortable with this visible influence on my life, what worries me more is the impact that I can’t see. How many prospective employers have discarded my CV because of my name? How often have I been racially profiled just for #livingwhileblack? These questions run past my mind whenever I experience a security guard following me in the supermarket.
Whilst I can call out and address unconscious bias on an individual basis, I can’t challenge systematic racism alone. We need to be working as a society to uncover unconscious biases that we may all hold. This involves listening to people of colour, immigrants, LGBTQ people, disabled people, women and other marginalised groups.
Identifying your own unconscious biases may not come easily, and will likely take time and practice, but the first step is acknowledging their existence.
If you’re looking for more suggestions on how you can challenge your biases, head here.