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A warning of ‘unconscious bias’ and connection to racism comes from Prince Harry

The Duke of Sussex commented that even if people do not consider themselves to be racist, an ‘unconscious bias’ can lead to racist behaviour.

Prince Harry stated that unconscious bias is something that many people do not understand. This can be learned from the older generation. It can also be instilled through advertising and through the environment we are brought up in.

The Prince added that unless people acknowledge that they are all part of this cycle, we would continuously be fighting against it.

The comments were made by the duke during an interview with conservationist Dr Jane Goodall. They will be published in the September issue of Vogue Magazine, which was guest edited by the Duchess of Sussex.

It was during a discussion about children that the subject of unconscious bias arose. The question was whether children could be born angry or learn to hate.

The conversation, which was requested by HRH included topics such as the effects of unconscious bias. They also spoke about the need for people to acknowledge the fact that their upbringing and environment can influence their prejudices without them realising it.

Harry described that when we start to peel away all the layers, taught behaviour, learned behaviour and experienced behaviour we find that at the end of the day we are all human.

Dr Goodall stated that children did not notice that their skin was black or white until someone told them.

Harry commented that even after coming up to someone and saying that they had behaved as a racist, they may still turn around and say that they are not a racist. People may have an unconscious point of view where they naturally look at another person in a different way.

The prince stated that it is at this point that people need to understand the meaning of unconscious bias. He added that ‘you can only be taught to hate.’

So, what does ‘unconscious bias’ mean?

This is a detectable bias in attitudes or behaviour which operates outside our awareness. An example of this could be asking a man to perform a task because subconsciously we assume that he is more capable than a woman.

Director of the Gender Leadership and Inclusion Centre at the Cranfield School of Management Dr Doyin Atewologun stated that this impact is very real, even though it may or may not be a conscious thought.

In his book ‘I can’t be racist’ Dr Keon West, a social psychologist specialising in prejudice looks at the idea of both conscious and unconscious racial bias. He questions how we should go about changing these unconscious associations. He also askes how effective anti-bias training was in the workplace.

What is racism?

The common definition of racism is described as discriminating against a person because of the colour of their skin. It is a deliberate and intentional act which is driven by hate. Keon argues that this definition falls short.

As with many black academics in the UK Keon stated that he is often presumed to be something else in his workplace. These include assumptions that he is a student, a cleaner or even an intruder.

While the presumptions may not be intended to be malicious, they do open a set of beliefs about black people and what they are allowed to be, as well as what they are not allowed to be. This, to Keon, is racism.

Keon also believes that whether a person meant to do harm was not the issue, the point it that the damage was done to another person. Racism is how our behaviour affects other people. It is essential that we focus on the consequences of both words and actions.

How does ‘unconscious bias’ form in our minds?

Tinu Cornish, a Chartered Organisational Psychologist at the Diversity and Inclusion at Work Group explained that unconscious bias is formed through a process known as ‘passive association.’

Neurons in the brain are connected when two events occur together. You may read an article about a Muslim terrorist. The next time you hear the work Muslim subconsciously you will connect it to terrorist.

Cornish stated that we need to be not only vigilant, but also constantly challenge the subconscious biases which are laid down in our minds. While we may not have chosen the biases in our minds, it is still our responsibility to do something about them.

Many businesses are now recognising the importance of tackling the issue of unconscious bias. A large proportion of the FTSE 350 offer unconscious bias training to their staff.

The aim of the training should be to make people aware of the areas they are most likely to make racist associations, and then take steps to reduce the effects on other people.

It may be that unconscious bias is just a small part of the big picture. Companies need to tackle this along with conscious bias and structural bias. Unless all three areas are tackled, there will be no positive results.

By setting up good rules, good policies and good legislation companies will remove the parts which encourage people to make bad decisions, and unconscious bias will not have a place.

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