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What’s in a name? Criticizing unconscious bias training

Our CEO Joy Warmington discusses a common flaw with unconscious bias training.

Let me start with a confession: brap use the ideas behind unconscious bias as part of our learning and development work. So having said that, the question now becomes whether your own biases against unconscious bias training will frame the way you read the rest of this piece (if you decide to read it at all, of course). 

At brap, we’re a bunch of former teachers and educators with an enduring interest in development and how people learn. So when we first became aware of this thing called ‘unconscious bias’, we decided to learn how to administer an online unconscious bias test. The idea is that people take the test, reveal who they have biases against and how strongly, and we then help them with coaching and other forms of development support. It sounds great in theory. The only slight problem is that we have never used unconscious bias in this way. 

This is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the test is expensive to administer and coach against. No one, once they have realised its costs, has ever asked us to do it. But secondly – and this is where I am with the critics of unconscious bias – I’m not sure that it works. There is the very real danger that after someone’s been through this process they can feel they’ve been thoroughly exposed to their biases and therefore have little work to do. This, I believe, is the criticism of unconscious bias. Once people have done the tests they can pat themselves on the back, tick a box, and comment on all the unenlightened people who don’t understand they have preferences formed by societal norms (and that’s at the level of individuals: once it’s commissioned by organisations, the real box ticking begins…).

As I said, at brap we are into learning. So we use the idea of unconscious bias to help people understand that even if they think they have nothing to learn (and that they are really ‘good’ people), the way we perceive and navigate the world is inevitability shaped by our socialisation.  Once we get them to understand this, we then hit them with the idea of prejudice and discrimination. We talk about power and the impact it has. Then we talk about the real impact individuals can have on equity – if they chose to act differently. In other words, we take them on a learning journey that gives them the opportunity to discuss who they are, how they are, and how they might be if they are really committed to social justice.

Many people have experienced other types of ‘training’ on the Equality Act 2010. I don’t believe this training is particularly helpful, although many organisations do it as standard. I’m going to pause for a moment or two to tell you that I am now quite old. I have been working in equalities for over 25 years. I began my career as an anti-racist trainer (at least, that’s what I think we were called back then) when the approaches to addressing racism were upfront. We explicitly discussed power, institutional discrimination, internalised oppression, wilful blindness, and the rest. This work seemed more real to me – but I question whether it invited real change. Perhaps all it did was help people understand the right terms to use – so they could end up talking about their privilege while sitting in front of an un-diverse organisation and believing themselves to have no responsibility to do better for Black communities. 

Ultimately, any type of one-off learning is set up to fail. It’s depressingly common how many people who are exposed to equalities learning do very little about it. But given the complexity of what we are asking people to understand and do, very few will take action unless they are required to change. You have to be able to commit to and understand what you are standing up for. And, to be honest, that’s what too few of us are really able or ready to do. 

Many organisations enter into training on equalities or unconscious bias with no plan to do things differently afterwards. Many believe their responsibilities have been executed when they have done a bit of consultation with the community, or recruited a more ‘diverse looking’ individual. It is up to us (those of us who believe that we can be part of a more just world) to demand more. To be clear about the limitations of any learning that we offer. To push organisations to do more, to be clear about their intended impact, and to steer them away from the meaningless and un-sustainable initiatives which they can easily ‘count’ but do little to change what people believe and do. 

Beliefs are hard to shift. We are in a game where we make no apologies for the fact that we need people to change and we require our society to be more accountable for this change. Our job is to be clear about what we perceive to be ‘better’ and to stand for it. Our job is to take people on a journey, where they too see that it is possible for them to stand up for more. We do a range of work – including anti-racist training – but we also try to utilise every opportunity we can to push people a little further along the journey. Unconscious bias is a nudge – no more or no less. 



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