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Abstract

‘Unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgements and assessments without us realising. Biases are influenced by background, cultural environment and experiences and we may not be aware of these views and opinions, or of their full impact and implications. This article opposes this point of view by arguing that bias is not unconscious but is (un)conscious and linked to Charles Mills’ ‘Racial Contract’ and its ‘epistemologies of ignorance’. These epistemologies emerge from what the Equality Challenge Unit (ECU) calls ‘our background, cultural environment and personal experience’. Asserting that racism stems from ‘unconscious bias’ diminishes white supremacy and maintains white innocence as a ‘will to forget’ institutional racism. In equality and diversity training ‘unconscious bias’ has become a performative act to move beyond racism through training to participate in a constructed ‘post-racial’ reality. The article argues that through decolonizing ‘unconscious bias’, ‘white fragility’ and ‘self-forgiveness’ we can begin to see hidden institutional whiteliness at the base of (un)conscious bias.
Whiteliness and institutional racism: hiding behind (un)
conscious bias
Shirley Anne Tate and Damien Page
S.A.Tate@leedsbeckett.ac.uk
Damien.page@leedsbeckett.ac.uk
Carnegie school of Education, Leeds Beckett University, Headingly campus,
Leeds, UK
This is an Authors’ Accepted Manuscript of an article to be published in Ethics
and Education, copyright Routledge. Final manuscript version available here:
https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17449642.2018.1428718
Whiteliness and institutional racism: hiding behind (un) conscious bias
Abstract
‘Unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgements and
assessments without us realising. Biases are influenced by background, cultural environment
and experiences and we may not be aware of these views and opinions, or of their full impact
and implications. This article opposes this point of view by arguing that bias is not
unconscious but is (un)conscious and linked to Charles Mills’ ‘Racial Contract’ and its
‘epistemologies of ignorance’. These epistemologies emerge from what the Equality
Challenge Unit (ECU) calls ‘our background, cultural environment and personal experience’.
Asserting that racism stems from ‘unconscious bias’ diminishes white supremacy and
maintains white innocence as a ‘will to forget’ institutional racism. In equality and diversity
training ‘unconscious bias’ has become a performative act to move beyond racism through
training to participate in a constructed ‘post-racial’ reality. The article argues that through
decolonizing ‘unconscious bias’, ‘white fragility’ and ‘self-forgiveness’ we can begin to see
hidden institutional whiteliness at the base of (un)conscious bias.
Introduction
‘Unconscious bias’ has ceased to be just a phrase, a gesture towards so-called ‘unwitting
racism’ and a call to anti-racist forgiveness of individual and institutional racism.
Unconscious bias’ has become ever more prevalent within institutions, transmogrified into
corporate training as an essential accoutrement to an organization’s equality and diversity
mission and institutional anti-racist transformation at the levels of culture, process and
systems. With roots in social psychology (see for example Dovidio et al. 1997), unconscious
bias has become the magic bullet for organizations, including universities, in the face of the
continued occurrence of racism. Despite protestations of egalitarianism and meritocracy, UK
universities remain largely white institutions with the rarity of senior academics of colour
rivalling the corporate sector. Such is the cognitive dissonance between racism and
egalitarianism, universities – like their corporate counterparts – have sought a means of
addressing whiteliness that avoids an acknowledgement of structural and systemic racism.
Thus, unconscious bias has emerged within the equality, diversity and inclusion environment
in UK Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) as an explanation for statistical racial disparities.
Unconscious bias is the acceptable face of racism, the phrase that a majority white sector
feels comfortable with using and discussing to describe itself. Unconscious bias is neatly
addressed by a 10-minute online training course with a multiple-choice assessment offered to
all new starters in universities across the UK which embrace equality, diversity and inclusion.
Unconscious bias training demonstrates universities’ good faith and willingness to address
racism and offers a re-take should participants fail the first time. No-one is left behind or
outside the unconscious bias community because it is regarded as the principal vehicle for
institutional culture change. Participants pass the training course if they learn the language,
acceptable behaviours and moral psychology of unconscious bias, if they learn to be able to
recognise when it is appropriate to assert that an event is the result of unconscious bias. Such
events can range from issues of strategic direction, recruitment and selection, promotion
processes, curriculum, admissions as well as student experience and outcomes, for example.
Unconscious bias pervades all aspects of institutional life. Jennifer Saul’s (2013, 40) work on
implicit bias and stereotype threat and their impact on women in Philosophy states that
‘implicit biases … are unconscious biases that affect the way we perceive, evaluate or interact
with people from the groups that our biases target’. Further:
psychological research over the last decades has shown that most people – even those
who explicitly and sincerely avow egalitarian views-hold …. implicit biases against
such groups as blacks, women, gay people and so on. This is even true of the targeted
group. So … women can be biased against women. (Saul 2013, 40)
The Equality Challenge Unit (ECU, 2013, 2017) has entered the discussion on unconscious
bias in academia. The ECU is a registered charity in the UK funded by the Scottish Funding
Council, HEFC for Wales, Universities UK and from subscriptions from universities in
England and Northern Ireland. Its mission is providing support for ‘equality and diversity for
staff and students in higher education institutions … [It provides] a central resource and
advice to the sector’ (https://www.ecu.ac.uk/ about-us/ accessed 15 December 2017). The
ECU’s report on Unconscious Bias and Higher Education (2013) uses a similar definition to
Saul’s:
Unconscious bias is a term used to describe the associations that we hold which,
despite being outside our conscious awareness, can have a significant influence on our
attitudes and behaviour. Regardless of how fair minded we believe ourselves to be,
most people have some degree of unconscious bias. This means that we automatically
respond to others (e.g. people from different racial or ethnic groups) in positive or
negative ways. These associations are difficult to override, regardless of whether we
recognise them to be wrong, because they are deeply ingrained into our thinking and
emotions (http://www.ecu.ac.uk/publications/unconscious-bias-in-higher-education/
accessed 15 September 2017).
Thus, ‘unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgements and
assessments of people and situations without us realising. Our biases are influenced by our
background, cultural environment and personal experiences. We may not even be aware of
these views and opinions, or be aware of their full impact and implications’
(www.ecu.ac.uk/guidance-resources/employment-and-careers/staff-recruitment/unconscious-
bias/ accessed 4 May 2017). The ECU has also developed training materials to help us to
uncover unconscious bias and act to counter it. However, if they are deeply ingrained into our
thinking and emotions they must be resistant to change. Notwithstanding this, unconscious
bias has initiated a resurgence in equality, inclusion and diversity training within a
background of continuing racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, class
discrimination and rampant cis-gender politics within UK universities. The concern in this
article will be to unravel the continued workings of anti-Black and people of colour racism
and white supremacy within ‘unconscious bias’ as an equality, diversity and inclusion mantra
within the UK HEI context. Viewing unconscious bias as one aspect of the institutionalisation
of racial liberalism (Mills 2017), the analysis will show that unconscious bias is a technology
of racialised governmentality which keeps the status quo of whiteliness in place within the
libidinal economy of racism. This is all the more pernicious because whiteliness continues to
be enabled within universities which claim to be ‘post-racial’ (Goldberg 2015) spaces. This
article will begin by framing unconscious bias within its social psychological roots which
becomes expressed within equality, diversity and inclusion training. It then argues that
unconscious bias is an alibi to diminish the recognition, analysis and salience of white
supremacy in order to maintain it. This alibi is a wilful silencing which as a political act
maintains white innocence at the same time as it enables a white ‘will to forget’ anti-Black
and people of colour racism. The final part of the argument will be focused on the question of
who gains from clinging to the idea of ‘unconscious bias’ as something that can’t be helped.
This will be done by decolonising ‘white fragility’ and the ‘self-forgiveness’ which
‘unconscious bias’ installs as the institutional approach to anti-racism until ‘we all know
better’. Let us now move to thinking about unconscious bias and maintaining whiteliness
through ignorance.
Framing unconscious bias in equality, diversity and inclusion training
Let us pause for a moment and dwell on ‘un’, the prefix in ‘unconscious’. ‘Un’ is significant
because this is where the denial of anti-Black and people of colour racism is maintained. ‘Un’
denotes an absence of a quality or state, a reverse of, a lack of and gives a negative force to
conscious bias. It denies the possibility of racist bias and erases the possibility of racism. In
contradistinction to this, we have another inscription of ‘unconscious bias’ which becomes
(un)conscious bias to point to its very conscious basis and the fact that ‘un’ as prefix is an
alibi for continuing white supremacy. Notwithstanding this critique, the making of
unconscious bias into a magic bullet means that there is no shortage of research on
unconscious bias. For example, Wood et al. (2009) found that applicants with British
sounding names were more often shortlisted for jobs; Steinpreis, Anders, and Ritzke (1999)
discovered both male and female psychologists were more likely to employ male early career
researchers; McConnell and Leibold (2001) found research participants exhibited more
defensive body language with black researchers than white researchers; Green et al. (2007)
found doctors were more likely to prescribe effective drugs to white rather than black
patients. A survey of the literature on unconscious bias reveals that in the vast majority of
cases, proceeding from a social psychological perspective, organisational approaches to
unconscious bias begin with the idea that bias is inevitable, that it is ingrained within us
within the flight-or-fight response, our unconscious “danger detector” that determines if
something or someone is safe before we can even begin to consciously make a determination
(Easterly and Ricard 2011). From this social psychological perspective which prevails within
the equality, diversity and inclusion mission statements of most institutions, the elimination
of bias is articulated as an impossibility, inscribed as it is at the ‘genetic’ and ‘instinctual’
levels. Racism and ethnocentrism also fall within the inscriptive hard-wiring of bias as,
‘ethnic and racial stereotypes are learned as part of normal socialisation and consistent among
many populations across time’ (Moule 2009).
For social psychologists (and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion training designers and
administrators), not only is unconscious bias inevitable at the individual level. It is inevitable
and, indeed, normal at the societal level. Racism – a word rarely used in the unconscious bias
semantic field, which is revealing in itself – is therefore not an active choice. Instead, it is
part of being human, an inescapable product of being a member of society. This approach
offers a solution to the organisational cognitive dissonance created by a lack of diversity by
removing it from being an active choice to representing it as one over which the individual
has no power. Racism from this perspective becomes ‘aversive’ (Dovidio and Gaertner 1991),
a means of characterising the ‘racial attitudes of many Whites who endorse egalitarian
values, who regard themselves as non-prejudiced, but who discriminate in subtle,
rationalisable ways’ (Dovidio et al. 1997). In aversively racist organisations – like
universities – built on foundations of equality, overt forms of racism are often said to have
been eliminated. Other forms, aversive forms, can be explained as the product of inevitable,
unconscious bias.
Indeed, most unconscious bias training begins from this basis of inevitability and normality,
that prejudice is intrinsically within us, and here is its first inherent weakness. As well as
being a weakness it is also a problematic barrier for much needed anti-racist institutional
transformation. An example will suffice here by way of illustration. Duguid and Thomas-
Hunt (2015) conducted an experiment with managers in which they told one group that
stereotypes are rare and told the other group that stereotypes were common. Both groups
were then given a job interview transcript where candidates asked for more money and were
described as either male or female. The group that were told that stereotypes are common
were found to be 28% less likely to hire the female candidate and judged her as 27% less
likeable. The findings suggest that when unconscious bias and its inherent stereotyping is
normalised, the normalisation process may exacerbate discrimination rather than challenging
it: if everyone is biased, it’s okay if I am too. In a follow-up experiment, Duguid and
Thomas-Hunt (ibid.) changed tack. Instead of just informing managers that stereotypes are
common, they added that the majority of people ‘try to overcome their stereotypic
preconceptions’. The difference in result was stark as discrimination was eliminated. The
managers in the experiment were 28% more interested in hiring the female candidate and
judged her as 25% more likeable. The implication is clear. To overcome bias, an awareness
of normalisation is insufficient; instead, what is needed is a more active process. The task for
those engaged in the equality, diversity and inclusion mission is not just to make individuals
aware of their inevitable and ‘normal’ bias in the belief that such awareness will alchemically
reduce racism. The task moves past an awareness of our unconscious bias, to a requirement
that we move beyond our ‘instinctual nature’ and base our judgements and actions on a
rational basis. As Easterly and Ricard (2011) argue, most human decisions are made
emotionally, and subsequently we collect or generate the facts to justify them. The aim of
unconscious bias training is therefore to address the ‘dual attitudes’ (Wilson, Lindsey, and
Schooler 2000) which govern our actions and behaviours. First, the implicit attitudes that ‘are
automatically activated by the mere presence (actual symbolic) of the attitude object and
commonly function without a person’s full awareness or control’ (Dovidio, Kawakami, and
Gaertner 2002). Second, there are the explicit attitudes which ‘shape deliberative, well-
considered responses for which people have the motivation and opportunity to weigh the
costs and benefits of various courses of action’ (ibid.). Successfully overcoming unconscious
bias is therefore a matter of individuals ensuring their explicit attitudes are sufficiently free of
bias so that they can overcome their inevitably biased implicit attitudes. For Dovidio,
Kawakami, and Gaertner (2002), this can only be accomplished when individuals have the
opportunity and motivation to assess the consequences of their actions. With these two factors
– opportunity and motivation – the assumption is that rational, egalitarian, bias-free, explicit
attitudes will be allowed to prevail. This is the basis and outcome of unconscious bias
training within the academy where the massive under-representation of Black academics and
academics of colour is seen as a result of individuals succumbing to inevitable and
normalised bias. It is this focus that highlights the inherent weakness of contemporary
approaches: the foregrounding of the individual that ignores the institutional and the systemic
and positions unconscious bias as an enabler of whiteliness through assertions of ignorance.
Unconscious bias and maintaining whiteliness through ignorance
Yancy (2015) describes whiteliness as a social, psychological and phenomenological racial
reality for white people constructed by an intersubjective matrix whereby white people enact
a common being-raced-in-the world which is seen as utterly benign in its naturalness, but
which is ‘nefariously oppressive’. Thus, we cannot only label acts committed by openly self-
ascribed racists as racist because racism is not just about believing in the existence of
biological ‘races’ (Yancy 2015). Getting people racialised as white to let go of such a false
ontology, or to understand that racism is immoral, has been shown not to ring the death-knell
for anti-Black and people of colour racism. The coloniality of white power keeps being re-
centred because there is no interrogation of whiteliness, of its political, economic, social,
imaginative, epistemic and affective boundaries. This is even the case in contexts in which
we are asked to look at our unconscious biases. The problem is that such asking does not
commit us to de-legitimising those White normative practices, systems of thought and
affective regimes that maintain and recycle anti-Black and people of colour racism. Part of
what keeps whiteliness in place as legitimate is the ‘epistemologies of ignorance’ of racism
(Mills 1997) where racism and white supremacy do not exist or, in a spectacular denial of
white supremacy, if racism exists then Black people can be racist too. Drawing from Charles
Mills (1997), Sullivan and Tuana (2007, 2) assert that racism’s epistemologies of ignorance
entail that the anti-racist task remains:
[…] tracing what is not known and the politics of such ignorance should be a key
element of epistemological and social and political analyses, for it has the potential to
reveal the role of power in the construction of what is known and provide a lens for
the political values at work in our knowledge practices. […] [We should pay attention
to] the epistemically complex processes of the production and maintenance of
ignorance.
We start here thinking about the interweaving of power and a knowing racist ignorance
precisely because it enables us to notice that (un)conscious bias is linked to power. As such,
(un)conscious bias is also part of the epistemic processes of the production of white
supremacy and its concomitant ‘white fragility’ through its claim to ignorance. Robin
DiAngelo (2011, 54) asserts that:
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates
them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds
white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to
tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a
state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering
a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions
such as anger, fear, guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the
stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial
equilibrium.
The institutionalisation of unconscious bias as alibi for white supremacy is part of white
fragility and, thereby, unconscious bias reinstates white racial equilibrium. The inevitability
of (un)conscious bias, the very notion providing palatability to discussions of racial
discrimination within organisations, facilitates this ignorance. A discussion of anti-Black and
people of colour racism is rarely held in majority-white institutions as claiming to be
(un)aware of racism would be exposed as not being about a lack of knowledge or information
but rather as ignoring racism, a wilful and intentional turning away from what whiteliness has
produced. This wilful ignoring is reflected in the way, for example, discussions around the
under-attainment of Black students and students of colour become focused on their deficit in
the form of an interrogation of whether they are ‘commuting students’ or disproportionately
working alongside full-time study. This is how universities continue to maintain a claim to
ignorance of how they continue to fail students because of racism. It simply becomes the fault
of students themselves. Similarly, discussions around the curriculum argue for the seminal
nature of white, male, western texts that couldn’t possibly be replaced, whilst data showing
that Black applicants and applicants of colour receive fewer offers of a place than white
students provoke further analysis of the impact of socio-economic status instead of race and
racism. In this emergence of racism’s denial, the inevitability of (un)conscious bias provides
the citational context of equality, diversity and inclusion, a performative act that professes an
organisational will to challenge racism yet simultaneously avoids engagement with racism via
the emphasis on inevitability and normalisation. (Un)conscious bias in institutional contexts
diverts our attention from white power, societies structured through racial dominance and the
coloniality of power, being, knowledge and affect (Tate and Bagguley 2017) which it drags
into the twenty-first century. Much like epistemologies of ignorance, the continuous
production and tenacious fixation on and maintenance of unconscious bias as part of equality,
diversity and inclusion, mean that we go from institutional to personal knowledge, focusing
on individual practices rather than ideological values and their imbrication with white
institutional power.
The ECU (2013) report asserts that there is a business case for dealing with unconscious bias
as well as a moral responsibility on the part of both individuals and institutions to deal with
an issue that so pervades every aspect of their/its work:
People and institutions not only have a moral responsibility for their implicit biases,
but a business responsibility; institutions need to be efficient and effective, and
decisions and actions need to be taken based on evidence and fact, rather than
stereotypes and hunches. […] implicit bias is likely to be relevant to many areas of an
institution’s work, for example appraisals and grievances, Research Excellence
Framework submissions, student admissions and course evaluations [… and]
recruitment and selection (http://www.ecu.ac.uk/publications/unconscious-bias-in-
higher-education accessed 15 September 2017).
Read from an institutional racism perspective this statement is what Ahmed (2004) would call
a ‘declaration of whiteness’ in which ‘admissions’ of ‘bad practice’ become signs of ‘good
practice’. This declaration of whiteness could be called an ‘unhappy `performative’ because
by its own admission ‘the conditions are not in place that would allow such declarations to do
what they say’ (Ahmed 2004). The conditions are not in place because (un)conscious bias as
an alibi for anti-Black and people of colour racism textures the (im)possibility of their
emergence. (Un)conscious bias (also called implicit bias in the ECU report) impacts all
aspects of academic life and remains impervious to remedy because of the affects (called
emotions by the ECU above) attached to anti-Black and people of colour ‘stereotypes and
hunches’ which pervade the very walls of the institution as well as dynamise its culture,
processes, ideologies and actions. For our purposes here we can say that there is a ‘libidinal
economy’ (Wilderson 2010) of racism attached to unconscious bias in place in UK HEIs.
Wilderson (2010, 7) sets out the operation of libidinal economy as related to both affiliation
and phobia which he claims is as objective as political economy. As we have seen above in
the ECU quote, affiliation and phobia impact political economy as well. Libidinal economy
structures psychic and emotional life and as such is resistant to change as, indeed, would be
(un)conscious bias because:
libidinal economy functions variously across scales and is as ‘objective’ as political
economy. It is linked not only to forms of attraction, affection, and alliance, but also
to aggression, destruction and the violence of lethal consumption … it is the whole
structure of psychic and emotional life … something more than but inclusive of or
traversed by … a ‘structure of feeling’; it is a dispensation of energies, concerns,
points of attention, anxieties, pleasures, appetites, revulsions, phobias capable of great
mobility and tenacious fixation.
This ‘dispensation of energies, concerns, points of attention, anxieties, pleasures, appetites,
revulsions, phobias’, underlies the construction of (un)conscious bias as a tool for the erasure
of anti-Black and people of colour racism. We can see this tenacious but mobile fixation of
anti-Black and people of colour racism if we look at how it impacts employment and
promotion within UK HEIs. The political economy of anti-Black and people of colour racism
and ‘misogynoir’ in these contexts is reproduced in UK academic institutions as illustrated
by employment statistics. The term ‘misogynoir’ was coined by Moya Bailey in 2010 to
describe Black African descent women’s specific experiences of sexism and racism and is
reflected in the following employment statistics (https://mic.com/articles/152965/meet-moya-
bailey-the-black-woman-who-created-the-termmisogynoir#.ByIkkdjq2 accessed 21
December 2016). According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency database for
2013/2014 the total number of UK academics in 2013/2014 was 194,240. Of these, 153,675
academics are white, that is, 79.1% of all academics with only 1.48% of Black academics. At
professor level 83.5% are white and 0.50% are Black. Gender negatively impacts Black
women’s promotion prospects once in academia as there were 60 male Black African
professors and 5 female Black African professors, 15 male Black Caribbean professors and
10 female Black Caribbean professors and 5 male Black Other professors and 5 female Black
Other professors. This is how ‘stereotypes and hunches’ act to hinder progress on racial
equality through their tenacious attachment to what the Black (wo)man is and can become.
These ‘stereotypes and hunches’ that are the manifestations of (un)conscious bias come out of
‘racialising assemblages’ (Weheliye 2014) in which the Black (wo)man’s and (wo)man of
colour’s bodies emerge out of the ‘complex social and historical interstices of whites’ efforts
at self-construction through complex acts of erasure vis-à-vis Black people [people of
colour]. These acts of self-construction, however, are myths/ideological constructions
predicated upon maintaining white power’ (Yancy 2005, 216). The Black and (wo)man of
colour’s material, epistemological, social and political body is erased so that white power and
privilege can be maintained. Erasure occurs through a peculiar kind of social recognition that
distorts reality such that white people mis-see themselves as ‘civilized superiors’ and non-
whites as ‘inferior savages’ whilst producing a ‘collective amnesia’ about the past of Empire,
colonialism and enslavement (Mills 2007). Such mis-seeing and peculiar social recognition
implicates (un)conscious bias as a part of the maintenance of such power, especially if we
think through the lens afforded us by the Racial Contract and its epistemologies of ignorance
(Mills 1997). Mills’ (1997) Racial Contract inserts an analysis of the operation of white
supremacy within the Social Contract invented by Western political philosophers. The
Contract and its epistemologies enable white supremacy and its racial entitlements to remain
unseen by those racialised as white (Mills 1997, 2007) through incantations of unconscious
bias. (Un)conscious bias enables a continuation of white privilege and power as those
racialised as white and non-whites who have been co-opted continue to benefit from the
world which they have created and maintained where:
Both globally and within particular nations, then, white people, Europeans and their
descendants, continue to benefit from the Racial Contract, which creates a world in
their cultural image, political states differentially favouring their interests, an
economy structured around the racial exploitation of others, and a moral psychology
(not just in whites, sometimes in nonwhites also) skewed consciously and
unconsciously toward privileging them, taking the status quo of differential racial
entitlement as normatively legitimate, and not to be investigated further. (Mills 1997,
40)
Mills’ (1997) Racial Contract extends from culture, to politics, to economy, to moral
psychology which is ‘skewed consciously and unconsciously’ towards white supremacy, and
‘a differential racial entitlement’ – white privilege – which is simply taken as a given. If we
say that a world is made in which both those racialised as Black/people of colour and white
see white privilege as ‘normatively legitimate’ then this means that (un)conscious bias relates
to norms. Norms are not racism neutral but drag the coloniality of white power (Quijano
2000; Gutiérrez Rodríguez 2016) into universities, impacting epistemology, institutional
hierarchies and ideas about who counts as human which begin from whiteliness as the norm
(Wynter 2003). Norms as expressed through institutional culture, practices like recruitment
and selection and processes like curriculum construction are not unconscious but maintain the
privilege of those racialised as white and non-whites who support whiteliness (Mills 1997,
2017; Yancy 2008, 2012). Black and people of colour phobia lives on within the libidinal
economies of white institutions organised ‘by trajectories of repulsion rather than attraction,
by phobic strivings “away from” rather than philic strivings “toward”’ (Ngai 2005, 11). This
is the normative anti-Black and people of colour life of universities which is relevant for
assertions of (un)conscious bias in equality, diversity and inclusion environments. As phobic
opinions and attitudes which it is said that ‘we are not aware’ that we hold but which
influence our actions, (un)conscious bias seems to be one aspect of the epistemologies of
ignorance which are part of the Racial Contract instantiated by whiteliness (Mills 1997). To
put it otherwise, (un)conscious bias is part of the apparatus of maintaining white racialised
power by calling on the idea of ignorance, of not knowing that what is being done or said is
racist because it was not wilfully said or done to hurt, to discriminate, to be racist. It came
from somewhere over which we have no control – i.e. the unconscious.
Equality, diversity and inclusion policies are a normative expectation of twenty-first century
UK higher education institutions. However, this normative expectation erases anti-Black and
people of colour racism and silences their daily experiences of racist, sexist, ablest, classist,
ageist, transphobic and homophobic exclusion, harassment, bullying and discrimination. This
erasure is enabled by the increasingly prevalent institutional norm of relating discriminatory
institutional culture and individual acts to unconscious bias which we can be trained to
‘unlearn’. This ‘unlearning’ has itself become a normative expectation in which ‘confession’
is necessary for anti-racist progress to be made institutionally. However, as Dovidio,
Kawakami, and Gaertner (2002) argue, overcoming the impacts of unconscious bias depends
on two elements. First, there must be opportunity, the time to reflect rationally on our implicit
attitudes, the space to interrogate our automated responses. The second element – and the one
that is most crucial – is motivation: implicit attitudes are more prevalent and more powerful
when the motivation to address them is absent. Yet the challenging of (un)conscious bias by
white institutions and white individuals would require challenging the Racial Contract itself,
it would require an acknowledgement of participation within systems of racism that privilege
whiteliness. Actually overcoming (un)conscious bias, then, requires a motivation to challenge
the very system which has provided white privilege, a motivation that, intrinsically, puts the
continuing benefits of white privilege at risk. Here is where the project of overcoming
(un)conscious bias threatens to move beyond palatability and challenge the Racial Contract.
Consequently, here is where the potential of unconscious bias training within universities
breaks down, risking as it does the benefits to whiteliness that continuation of the Racial
Contract offers. Here it is then where ‘white fragility’ and self-forgiveness emerge as key
discourses focused on minimising risk to these benefits while keeping institutional racism in
place.
Decolonising ‘white fragility’: self-forgiveness as an approach to institutional racism
Let us change tack a little and look to another meaning of bias. That is, ‘a direction diagonal
to the weave of the fabric’. It is taking this diagonal approach to thinking which we will try to
establish as we look at the ‘white fragility’ which is linked to unconscious bias and its
attached self-forgiveness as an antidote to institutional racism. In equality, diversity and
inclusion understandings, we have to confess to unconscious bias to move towards
diminishing institutional racism. This confession instantiates ‘a fantasy of transcendence in
which “what” is transcended is the very “thing” admitted to in the declaration’ (Ahmed
2004).
What Ahmed speaks about here are very unreflective confessions of doing wrong which will
not have the effect of diminishing institutional racism. As Saul (2013, 55) avers, ‘a person
should not be blamed for an implicit bias of which they are completely unaware that results
solely from the fact that they live in a sexist [racist] culture. Even once they become aware
that they have implicit biases, they do not instantly become able to control their biases and so
they should not be blamed for them’. Confessions of (un)conscious bias within the context of
training in equality, diversity and inclusion can (re)centre white supremacy by removing
blame and its accompanying shame and guilt which is part of the process of unlearning white
supremacy. White fragility emerges as vulnerability, anger, fear, for which the only balm is
self-forgiveness because you simply did not actively know; your racism was unconscious –
after all, unconscious bias begins from the premise of inevitability and normalisation.
However, self-forgiveness is inactive as an approach to institutional racism because it relies
on introspection on the part of the white self and institution which is what Yancy (2015) calls
a ‘distancing strategy’. (Un)conscious bias is a strategy to distance the white self from the
charge of racism and, indeed, that one can be implicated in its perpetuation. (Un)conscious
bias does this by occluding the extent of white supremacy and its impact on Black people and
people of colour and on white people themselves by focusing on the white suffering that
results from ‘irrational claims’ of anti-Black and people of colour racism. (Un)conscious bias
maintains white supremacy and, indeed, its very definition insists that racist culture and
environment are crucial to its existence. The need to focus on white suffering, white fragility,
to say it is not your fault, produces a paradox at its centre where those racialised as white are
victims of the racism from which they benefit.
Let us use an example from the ECU report (2013, 6) cited earlier to look further
at why confessions of unconscious bias do not lead to diminishing institutional
racism. In this report, higher education institutions are asked to consider whether:
shortlisting can be done anonymously. Particularly for professional and support
positions, human resources (HR) processes could be adapted to remove information
such as name, school, university, all monitoring data, and anything else that is
irrelevant to the application.
Leaving to one side the difficulty of doing this for academic positions because of the
publications aspect, what this approach denies is the impact of organisational culture on who
is hired once they are in the interview. The culture of the organisation is a zone of ‘suturing’
(Yancy 2015) of whiteliness to white power and privilege which is not undone through
confessions of unconscious bias. This is so because white supremacy remains stubbornly in
place as it is not challenged by the beneficiaries of the Racial Contract who, as we recall from
Mills (1997) above, can also include non-whites. Through an engagement with literature and
training in unconscious bias, white people and white institutions simply feel that they need do
nothing at all apart from to confess to having unconscious bias. Here we have the Racial
Contract in action, where white power and white supremacy as the norm do not need to be
investigated any further because ‘whiteliness is not the problem, racism is, everybody can be
racist including Black people and we are not white supremacists or have right wing politics
so we can’t be racists’. Does this distancing strategy meant to avert the gaze from whiteliness
sound familiar? The charge of Black racism does not take into account the systemic nature of
racism, empire, colonialism nor the white constructed ‘racializing assemblages’ (Weheliye
2014 ) that ensure white supremacy, for example. To assert that only self-proclaimed white
supremacists are racist is to continue to not see one’s part in maintaining whiteliness which
remains a ‘non-knowing [which includes] both straightforward racist motivation and more
impersonal social-structural causation … also moral non-knowings, incorrect judgements
about the rights and wrongs of moral situations themselves’ within which Black people and
people of colour can be implicated (Mills 2017, 57). Confessions of unconscious bias seek
temporary solace from the charge of anti-Black and people of colour racism and its lived
experiences. (Un)conscious bias cannot fix institutional racism because racist white
relationalities extend from and to the white self through the process of white subject
formation that restrict access to understanding the extent of white racism through
epistemologies of ignorance. (Un)conscious bias is about protecting whiteliness from its
noxious self through ensuring the non-occurrence of normative white disruption. However, it
is this normative white disruption that is necessary if we are to get beyond unconscious bias
to thinking about how we can dismantle the toxic culture of institutional racism.
To bring about such normative white disruption, what we have to engage in is the other
meaning of bias, a thinking diagonally, against the grain in other words, which ruptures white
fragility and the culture of thinking ‘it’s unconscious bias what done it’. This bias, this
diagonal thinking is about opening the white self and the non-white co-opted self to the
alterity that it has itself created, to that epistemology which is not seen as knowledge, that
morality which is seen as immoral, those affects which are seen as irrelevant for institutional
life. Thinking diagonally means, to paraphrase Yancy (2015), that we choose to lose our way,
we practice becoming unsutured to whiteliness and we seek to not see it as the normative
expectation.
From this space of criticality, this bias, we can come to terms with the fact of whiteliness and
our complicity with and involvement in maintaining a white ‘racist second skin’ (Tate 2018)
which extends from the individual to the social and back again in a feedback loop. It is this
white racist second skin which remains intact and that needs to be dismantled as it underlies
the white epistemologies of ignorance of/about anti-Black and people of colour racism which
are so entrenched. Thinking diagonally instantiates a decentring of whiteliness which does
not return it as centre or return to it as fragile or vulnerable but acknowledges it as
supremacist, a site of the coloniality of power and a location which is inimical to everyone’s
psychic health, both Black and people of colour and white. It is only through a refusal of this
return that such bias can enable a form of thinking which dwells on the question of the
uneasy feelings, practices and processes caused by white racism’s impacts institutionally and
personally rather than eliding them through a focus on unconscious bias. Dwelling on uneasy
feelings, practices and processes means that the relationality between the white self and anti-
Black and people of colour racism cannot be seen from a distance. Dwelling with unease
rather than its elision could enable us to challenge and address racism within ‘post-race’
contexts where racism is seen as only being committed by white supremacists and members
of the far right or alt-right and Black people can be racist too. Equality, diversity and
inclusion’s unconscious bias denies the need for institutional action because it focuses on the
individual, volunteerism and minimising white fragility. Senior leaders must go beyond
unconscious bias, foreground the Racial Contract underlying institutional life and prescribe
the necessity for anti-racist change which can only emerge when we see racism and white
supremacy as problems.
Conclusion
In Look A White! George Yancy (2012) reminds us that the white self is a location of opacity
in terms of its own racism. (Un)conscious bias keeps people racialized as white and the non-
white co-opted spoken about by Mills (1997) entombed within white racism. This white
racism sets the boundaries of who they are andwhat they can become as it makes them
complicit in its operation because they benefit (Mills 1997; Yancy 2012). The ECU (2013)
definition with which we started pointed us to the fact that to understand unconscious bias we
cannot merely look to the individual psyche but also to our institutions’ cultures and
practices. We have to continuously look diagonally, from the bias, at that culture for the signs
of anti-Black and people of colour racism and think about what this has done to our
understandings of ourselves in the world that we inhabit. It is from this bias that anti-racism
can begin to reconstruct subjectivities, institutions, epistemologies, discourses on the human
and regimes of recognition.
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