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Whiteliness and institutional racism

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Ethics and Education
ISSN: 1744-9642 (Print) 1744-9650 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/ceae20
Whiteliness and institutional racism: hiding behind
(un)conscious bias
Shirley Anne Tate & Damien Page
To cite this article: Shirley Anne Tate & Damien Page (2018): Whiteliness and institutional racism:
hiding behind (un)conscious bias, Ethics and Education
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/17449642.2018.1428718
Published online: 01 Feb 2018.
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ETHICS AND EDUCATION, 2018
https://doi.org/10.1080/17449642.2018.1428718
Whiteliness and institutional racism: hiding behind (un)
conscious bias
Shirley AnneTate and DamienPage
Carnegie School of Education, Leeds Beckett University, Headingley Campus, Leeds, UK
ABSTRACT
‘Unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly
quick judgements and assessments without us realising. 
Biases are inuenced 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,
transmogried into corporate training as an essential accoutrement to an organ-
ization’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 universi-
ties remain largely white institutions with the rarity of senior academics of colour
rivalling the corporate sector. Such is the cognitive dissonance between racism
© 2018 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
KEYWORDS
Unconscious bias;
epistemologies of ignorance;
decolonising; ‘post-racial’;
racism; white fragility
CONTACT Shirley Anne Tate s.a.tate@leedsbeckett.ac.uk
2 S. A. TATE AND D. PAGE
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 oered to all new start-
ers in universities across the UK which embrace equality, diversity and inclusion.
Unconscious bias training demonstrates universities’ good faith and willingness to
address racism and oers a re-take should participants fail the rst 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 aect 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 uncon-
scious 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 sta 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 denition 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 signicant inuence 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 dierent racial or ethnic groups) in positive or negative ways.
These associations are dicult 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).
ETHICS AND EDUCATION 3
Thus, ‘unconscious bias happens by our brains making incredibly quick judgements
and assessments of people and situations without us realising. Our biases are inu-
enced 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/
sta-recruitment/unconscious-bias/ accessed 4 May 2017). The ECU has also devel-
oped training materials to help us to uncover unconscious bias and act to coun-
ter 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 inclu-
sion 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 nal part of the argument
will be focused on the question of who gains from clinging to the idea of ‘uncon-
scious 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 prex in ‘unconscious’. ‘Un’ is signif-
icant 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 inscrip-
tion of ‘unconscious bias’ which becomes (un)conscious bias to point to its very con-
scious basis and the fact that ‘un’ as prex is an alibi for continuing white supremacy.
Notwithstanding this critique, the making of unconscious bias into a magic bul-
let means that there is no shortage of research on unconscious bias. For example,
4 S. A. TATE AND D. PAGE
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 eective 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 psychologi-
cal perspective, organisational approaches to unconscious bias begin with the
idea that bias is inevitable, that it is ingrained within us within the ight-or-ght
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 pre-
vails within the equality, diversity and inclusion mission statements of most insti-
tutions, 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 eld, 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 oers 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 egali-
tarian 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 rst inherent
weakness. As well as being a weakness it is also a problematic barrier for much
needed anti-racist institutional transformation. An example will suce 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
ETHICS AND EDUCATION 5
were found to be 28% less likely to hire the female candidate and judged her
as 27% less likeable. The ndings 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
dierence 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 insucient; 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 uncon-
scious 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 benets of various
courses of action’ (ibid.). Successfully overcoming unconscious bias is therefore a
matter of individuals ensuring their explicit attitudes are suciently 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.
6 S. A. TATE AND D. PAGE
Unconscious bias and maintaining whiteliness through ignorance
Yancy (2015) describes whiteliness as a social, psychological and phenomenologi-
cal 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 aective 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 aective 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 ele-
ment 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 tol-
erate 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-in-
ducing 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 dis-
cussions of racial discrimination within organisations, facilitates this ignorance. A
ETHICS AND EDUCATION 7
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 reected in the way, for example, discussions around the under-attainment
of Black students and students of colour become focused on their decit in the
form of an interrogation of whether they are commuting students’ or dispropor-
tionately 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 oers 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 aect (Tate and Bagguley 2017) which it drags into the
twenty-rst century. Much like epistemologies of ignorance, the continuous pro-
duction and tenacious xation 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 ecient and eective, and deci-
sions 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 submis-
sions, 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
8 S. A. TATE AND D. PAGE
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 aects
(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 aliation and phobia which he claims is as objective as political economy.
As we have seen above in the ECU quote, aliation 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 econ-
omy. It is linked not only to forms of attraction, aection, and alliance, but also to aggres-
sion, 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, anx-
ieties, pleasures, appetites, revulsions, phobias capable of great mobility and tenacious
xation.
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 xation 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 ‘misog-
ynoir’ 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 specic experiences of sexism
and racism and is reected in the following employment statistics (https://mic.
com/articles/152965/meet-moya-bailey-the-black-woman-who-created-the-term-
misogynoir#.ByIkkdjq2 accessed 21 December 2016). According to the Higher
Education Statistics Agency database for 2013/2014 the total number of UK aca-
demics 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 pro-
fessors 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.
ETHICS AND EDUCATION 9
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 his-
torical interstices of whites’ eorts 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, epistemo-
logical, 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 aorded 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 enti-
tlements 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 benet 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 benet from the Racial Contract, which creates a world in
their cultural image, political states dierentially 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 dierential 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 dierential 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
10 S. A. TATE AND D. PAGE
lives on within the libidinal economies of white institutions organised ‘by trajec-
tories 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 inuence
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 maintain-
ing 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-rst 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
reect 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 insti-
tutions 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 benets 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 benets to whiteliness that continuation of the Racial Contract
oers. Here it is then where ‘white fragility’ and self-forgiveness emerge as key
discourses focused on minimising risk to these benets while keeping institutional
racism in place.
ETHICS AND EDUCATION 11
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 unreective confessions of doing
wrong which will not have the eect 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 train-
ing in equality, diversity and inclusion can (re)centre white supremacy by remov-
ing 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 strat
-
egy’. (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 suering that results from ‘irrational claims’ of anti-Black and people of col-
our racism. (Un)conscious bias maintains white supremacy and, indeed, its very
denition insists that racist culture and environment are crucial to its existence.
The need to focus on white suering, 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 benet.
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 posi-
tions, 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.
12 S. A. TATE AND D. PAGE
Leaving to one side the diculty 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 uncon-
scious bias. This is so because white supremacy remains stubbornly in place as it
is not challenged by the beneciaries 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 uncon-
scious 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 assem-
blages’ (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 x 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 epistemol-
ogy which is not seen as knowledge, that morality which is seen as immoral, those
aects 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.
ETHICS AND EDUCATION 13
From this space of criticality, this bias, we can come to terms with the fact of whiteli-
ness 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’ con-
texts 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 racialised
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 and
what they can become as it makes them complicit in its operation because they
benet (Mills 1997; Yancy 2012). The ECU (2013) denition 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.
14 S. A. TATE AND D. PAGE
Disclosure statement
No potential conict of interest was reported by the authors.
ORCID
Shirley Anne Tate http://orcid.org/0000-0003-3060-9880
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