Unconscious bias tells us nothing about racism

The fad for unconscious-bias training actually diminishes the seriousness of racism.

Inaya Folarin Iman

Topics Politics

Racism, for most people, rightfully and intuitively, either means discriminating against people based on the socially constructed category of race or holding the worldview that certain ‘races’ are superior and others inferior. Thankfully, through hard-fought struggle, these ideas have been, by and large, intellectually and politically defeated.

However, in recent years, the definition of racism has been gratuitously expanding. It no longer refers just to conscious behaviour and choices that actively exclude other people based on the colour of their skin. Racism is now viewed as a consequence of ‘hidden’ and ‘unconscious’ forces in the depths of the human psyche, which are secretly pulling the strings of our actions.

This new way of seeing racism has given birth to an entire pseudoscientific industry that claims to expose and rid people of their ‘unconscious bias’ by re-educating them into correct-think. But, in truth, this isn’t combatting racism – far from it. It’s a misanthropic development that demeans the seriousness of actual racism and undermines freedom of thought. It also dissolves the boundaries between the public and private sphere, and pathologises human instincts.

Implicit Association Tests (IATs) and the subsequent training have become increasingly popular. This week, Labour leader Keir Starmer vowed to take unconscious bias training. But the scientific validity and reliability of these tests is highly contested, to put it lightly. A great deal of evidence even suggests the tests are entirely baseless.

According to journalist Jesse Singal, ‘by the normal standards of psychology, IATs [fall] well below the threshold of being useful in most practical, real-world settings’. This is, in part, because there is no clear link between unconscious bias and behaviour.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education:

‘Researchers from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Harvard, and the University of Virginia examined 499 studies over 20 years involving 80,859 participants that used the IAT and other, similar measures. They discovered two things: One is that the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior appears weaker than previously thought. They also conclude that there is very little evidence that changes in implicit bias have anything to do with changes in a person’s behavior.’

This is unsurprising. It is not at all clear whether you can meaningfully detect bias if it only exists in the context of a very specific test result and never bubbles out into the real world. People may instinctively feel or think a negative thing about another person, but they may recognise that thought and choose not to act on it. If they then want to address the root of those thoughts in their personal time, that is their choice. But employers have absolutely no business examining people’s psychological processes.

In addition, people may have biases for a whole host of reasons. Our instincts are an important heuristic. They enable us to make quick judgements. But there is no obvious straight line between what our instincts tell us and why they tell us what they do. Our instincts could well be a result of latent racism (unlikely), they could come from experience, or they could simply be a reflection of what is largely true.

Many stereotypes are near completely nonsensical – such as blonde people being less intelligent. But some stereotypes are also grounded in greater material reality and may serve a useful purpose. If teenagers with red hats robbed a particular shop every day, then it would not be unreasonable for the shopkeeper to stereotype and have a bias against teenagers with red hats – but that doesn’t stop the shopkeeper from being open and friendly when proven wrong. Although a trivial example, it simply illustrates that a range of factors can be at play in the development of biases. Ultimately, however, what is important is our behaviour, not our thoughts, conscious or unconscious.

There is now a moral panic about racism. Racism is now believed to be lurking everywhere, in every corner, even in the depths of our unconscious mind. There is a view that any bias in favour of white people is an example of racism. But, in a society that is overwhelmingly white and has been that way for most of history until recently, is it so absurd to view being white in Britain as the norm? Indeed, that perception may change over time and can be ‘unlearned’. It will not change through top-down training, however, but rather through open and free exchange and cross-boundary communication. Or it won’t – and that’s also okay. There are a range of factors that shape our perceptions and actions. But, contrary to the view espoused by current social-justice activism, the overwhelming majority of people are not motivated by any form of racism. Most people are kind and decent and treat people fairly.

More importantly, unconscious-bias training further contributes to the ‘biologisation of racism’, which diminishes its seriousness. Racism isn’t a disease of the mind. Nor do we have a ‘pandemic of racism’ that needs to be ‘cured’ by specialists. This idea strips people who are racist of their culpability. It would be absurd to suggest that Apartheid or Jim Crow were simply examples of ‘extreme unconscious bias’ which could have been avoided if only the perpetrators were ‘trained’ to think differently. This reduces racism to a passive underlying thought process rather than an active political ideology.

The same is true of the defeat of racism. When we look at Britain in the 1980s, those who marched, fought and argued against racism in the end far outweighed those who supported it. That built momentum which led to actual material change. That is how racism is combatted – by people building solidarity, showing a united front and standing as equals. These powerful demonstrations of strength and a vision for the future are what have created the post-racist society we live in today.

Unconscious-bias training is a total con-job. But sadly, there appears now to be no sphere left free from the intrusion of wokeness. The attempt to reduce human beings to mere passive robots that can be programmed through Pavlovian conditioning to think in a narrow way is deeply misanthropic. It views human beings as a problem to be ‘improved’, not through a personal journey or collective struggle but through standardised testing and training.

The realm of our mind is our own, and we neither have to justify it nor ‘correct it’ for anyone else. We will always have one bias or another, which means trainers will always be in a job – which is probably the real goal here. Unconscious-bias training will only add to the climate of censorship and ideological conformity.

Inaya Folarin Iman is a spiked columnist.

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dom torato

13th July 2020 at 7:20 am

Forget the kids, what about the teachers? What is really damaging to children is when teachers have lower expectations of certain children HERE► Read More

James Knight

12th July 2020 at 5:45 pm

Forget the kids, what about the teachers? What is really damaging to children is when teachers have lower expectations of certain children – maybe due to race or background. Or it maybe some kids are effectively labelled as low achievers and nothing is ever expected of them.

Ariana Ash

12th July 2020 at 12:19 pm

Racism, for most people, rightfully and intuitively, either means discriminating against people based on the socially HERE►CLICK HERE.

Ariana Ash

12th July 2020 at 12:15 pm

I think the salient paragraph in Wendy Kaminer’s article is the one beginning, HERE►CLICK HERE.

David McAdam

12th July 2020 at 12:07 pm

A nursery school assistant told me that if a child turned his nose up at rice or pizza, for example, she had to record that as latent racism. Well, well, well! After all these years, I now know why I’ve been turning my nose up at soy bean dishes.

Marvin Jones

12th July 2020 at 11:09 am

How many more advantages will these liberal amoebas invent so the inept, uneducated parasites who are welcomed in with open arms are provided with all that life can supply, and never be capable of fending for themselves. My wife has been ordered to work until 66, 50 years of grafting and paying her dues, but at the vulnerable age where she could spend her last years in retirement, in danger of all sorts of ailments shortening even that, these spineless asinine dolts have robbed her of even that. But the feckless, useless, illiterate law breakers always win.

dom torato

12th July 2020 at 7:55 am

Racism, for most people, rightfully and intuitively, either means discriminating against people based on the socially HERE► Read More


13th July 2020 at 5:50 pm

Why do your posts issue Upper Case orders and point to instructions printed in red?

Stef Steer

11th July 2020 at 10:32 pm

If unconscious bias training is looked down upon by psychology which is itself a pseudo science that fails to understand or replicate diagnosis or treatment then that gives you an idea of how bad it is (and how bad Starmer would be cos either he is stupid or corrupt). The practitioners of this nonsense are akin to witch finders but with a monetary incentive too and I am sure in a few years we will have a ducking stool where all white people are determined to be racist if they don’t drown.

Steele Rudd

12th July 2020 at 6:09 am

Yes, it’s pretty bad… and looks like getting worse, since it’s become a self-feeding passion.

The woke ones start off seeking likes by ramping up the approved rhetoric, eg GE or BLM, then move on to become self-appointed high priests and witch hunters bestowing career life or death. And for what real benefit, apart from some very well-paid positions for themselves?

In Negative

11th July 2020 at 8:56 pm

“‘by the normal standards of psychology, ”

Which is a pretty low bar in and of itself.

Linda Payne

11th July 2020 at 7:23 pm

Try having a mental illness; being blanked by ex colleagues after losing your job, taking to someone only for a third person to but in and cutting you out of the conversation, being blanked by just about every local even though I have lived in the place for 25years, having people literally run away from me if I am walking too close, going to conferences and being blanked by someone you knew for years, having someone knock on your door in the middle of the night just to tell you you ‘fucking frighten the life out of me’, being informed that the job you went for in the school has sparked annoymous phone calls complaining of my mental state, being told there are no jobs in the local co op with a turnnover faster than a ferris wheel, or the local newsagent or even cleaning, bullied out the only career you had because they find out you have mental problems cut of by the whole of your family who get you arrested if you send them angry letters about it, no one to talk to about ANY of it, my husband doesn’t want to know as my problems make him too stressed (he’s a good father though), yes it’s good to talk isn’t it?

Neil McCaughan

11th July 2020 at 6:13 pm

First paragraph is just plain wrong.

Brexit is racist. Classical music is racist. Scholastic excellence is racist. Britain’s marvellous history is racist. All the usual authorities, the idiot BBC, the imbecile Guardian, assure us that this is so.

Accordingly, racism is an extremely good thing, and we should hope to have a great deal more of it.

jon Cassar

11th July 2020 at 3:55 am

I don’t dislike or feel superior to anyone, I just prefer to choose people I like.

Daniel Goldstein

11th July 2020 at 8:51 pm

Which is surely fine. People will do that anyway, you can’t control minds.

Michel Houllebeq

11th July 2020 at 1:05 am

Talking of cancel culture I’ve had repeated comments not shown here by the moderators – I gave my experience in an inner-city London state comprehensive being white working class and the interactions with others and what happened. Is there anywhere I can speak?

Daniel Goldstein

11th July 2020 at 8:55 pm

I think it’s certain words which get moderated – referring to Middle East religions. That’s when my posts get moderated. I’d be interested to read those thoughts as I could empathise.

Marvin Jones

12th July 2020 at 11:00 am

Whenever these outlets, so strictly controlled by the lefty liberal establishment hear or see anything that is so close to the real truth, they make excuses and reject it. ANY truth offends someone.

Gordon Te Gopher

10th July 2020 at 2:09 pm

Well said!

James Knight

10th July 2020 at 1:44 pm

In short, it is junk science. No more scientific credibility for this than gay conversion therapy.

nick hunt

10th July 2020 at 4:45 pm

Actually, conversion thereapy can work, according to various online sources. More importantly, naive leftists using ‘science’ to ground their dogmas need to realise that science is not an oracle; it is in fact the complete opposite of their dogmas about equality, multiculturalism etc becasue it is always subject to improvement. Dogma never changes. Science is constant scepticism or “belief in the ignorance of experts’ (Richard Feynman). As such, using science to belittle or silence criticism is fraudulent. Don’t repeat Greta’s mistake, please.

Daniel Goldstein

11th July 2020 at 8:54 pm

The left is a great respecter of religion – well, one in particular. Yet science disproves that whole belief system.

Dominic Straiton

10th July 2020 at 8:25 pm

Gay conversion therapy is alive and well with “trans” . Dont like your kids gay, cut off his tackle like they do in Iran.

Dominic Straiton

10th July 2020 at 1:41 pm

All these woke graduates with pointless degrees in bullshit have to create an entire industry to gain employment. Its a hustle. I have conscious bias against these race baiting morons.

nick hunt

10th July 2020 at 4:46 pm


Gordon Te Gopher

10th July 2020 at 1:05 pm

I don’t believe in the concept of ‘white privilege’ but I do feel quite thankful as a white man that corporate HR departments don’t assume I’m a victim because of the colour of my skin and force my colleagues to carry out bs training courses that have nothing to do with their actual job

James Knight

10th July 2020 at 1:50 pm

I feel enormously privileged. But that has nothing to do with race. If you use a toilet without thinking or needing to know where it goes, that is privilege. If you get food from a shop without knowing where it comes from, or having to kill it yourself, that is privilege. The life of anyone on the lowest of incomes is now better than that of an aristocrat used to be.

There are some more gratuitous forms of privilege, as you can see on many BLM protests when they start acting out.

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