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I’m not prejudiced, am I? Unpicking unconscious bias

The year 2020 has not been easy for many but as humans, we are very resilient and are beginning 2021 with optimism and hope. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted for me that phrase, “We’re all in the same storm but not all in the same boat.” Some of us are implicitly more privileged than others just because of when or where we were born, our home circumstances and the colour of our skin. Some of us have a head start in life. I was reflecting about this and relating it to unconscious bias and how this has a significant impact on people’s lives and our work with children without us really knowing, which can lead to prejudice.

Let me explain. Everyday our brains are adding to our picture of the world by our experiences and knowledge that we acquire and, in order to make sense of this information, we unconsciously create mental structures which help to order our thinking. These are generalisations about the world and what it is like. These pictures tend to be very flexible as new learning often requires us to adjust our thinking to account for new information.

When we are little, we use these frameworks to recognise and organise our thinking, for example, we may learn the ‘dog-ness of dogs’: dogs have 4 legs, a waggy tail and bark. This is a bit like a stereotype of a dog which helps us in our youngest years differentiate dogs from cats… These frameworks are very helpful and our brains continue to do this throughout our lives, however, they can be problematic when they become rigid and we are unable to stray from this thinking. This is when we can become prejudiced and discrimination can occur.  For example, we might have a stereotype that helps us to recognise boys and girls.  Our brains may sort out children we meet into the binary ‘boy/girl’ categories and then one day we meet a child who doesn’t easily fit into either. Our thinking needs to be flexible enough to cope with this and to accept that this child may not easily fit into our original thinking. If we then make assumptions based on our thinking or act less favourably toward this child, we are discriminating against them. This negative stereotype has become unhelpful and full of prejudice.

How does this fit with unconscious bias? Imagine you are on the train and you need to pop to the toilet. You’ve really made yourself at home, unpacked your laptop and put your water bottle on the table. You think you have time to quickly pop to the washroom and be back before the train stops at the next station. So you look around the carriage at your fellow passengers so that you can ask someone to keep an eye on your things while you vacate your seat. Who do you choose?  This is where your unconscious bias takes over. You are more likely to ask someone who you perceive to be trustworthy or ‘like’ you. Our unconscious bias in this case would use mainly visual characteristics, for example, colour of skin, gender, clothing, and other cues, like accent, name or snippets of an overheard conversation to help us decide who to ask. Who is the safest person and the most likely to help?

Unconscious, or implicit bias as it is sometimes called, is our automatic awareness or thinking that we do not have conscious control over. Research shows us that white people are more likely to trust white people, and we would be more likely to choose the clean-shaven businessman in a suit over the tattooed youth in a hoodie to mind our belongings. Our brains are making snap judgements about these people using the information it has available, which is mostly obvious characteristics like age, gender, race and cultural cues.  Everyone is subject to unconscious bias and this is not discriminatory in itself, however, our unconscious bias can lead to discriminatory behaviour as there is potential for prejudice. For example, when reading CVs for a job we may be unconsciously influenced when reading a candidate’s name, age, sex, religion or other cultural reference before we have even met the candidates.

So we have unconsciously organised our thinking in ways that help us to function on a daily basis and this can contribute to unconscious bias. It is this thinking that helps us to decide who to ask to mind our laptop. We probably have a mental picture of a ‘thief’ and we are choosing someone who is least like this picture. It would be impossible to remove this from our thinking and our unconscious bias can be very helpful, for example, when we see a red light, we know to stop without thinking about it. However, there are things that we can do which will reduce the potential for prejudice and keep our unconscious a little more in check. For example, if I know that, as a white person, research shows I might be biased towards black people, I need to consciously reflect upon my thoughts, words and actions in relation to race to help ensure that my unconscious bias doesn’t discriminate.

Some theorists claim that talking about unconscious bias can, in reality, fuel racism rather than address it. “Unconscious bias is the acceptable face of racism, the phrase that a majority white sector feels comfortable with using and discussing to describe itself” (Tate & Page, 2018:142).  This is because when we talk about the unconscious, we are moving beyond our responsibility, it is as if we are saying, ‘I have no control over this and cannot be held responsible for it’. However, this is not true. There are things that we can actively do to help to address this bias.

Here are some ideas of how we can address unconscious bias:

  1. Allow time to reflect upon ourselves, become aware of our biases and identify them
  2. Be determined and motivated to address our bias and challenge the system
  3. Review all aspects of our practice (including policies and procedures) and try to identify any hidden biases
  4. In our direct work with the children, focus on the unique child and their individual strengths and abilities
  5. Continue to develop empathy and perspective-taking skills
  6. Deliberately counter unconscious bias by sharing stories that challenge stereotypes
  7. Actively promote diversity, equality and inclusive practice
  8. Educate yourself and others in relation to unconscious and implicit bias

It is worth bearing in mind that attending a short training session on unconscious bias will not adequately address this issue and could even be described as tokenistic or a box-ticking exercise. True change needs to come about through a thorough reflective review and impact on the whole culture of our setting. However, a training course might be a good place to start because I believe that education is key to understanding ourselves, our biases and acknowledging our difficulties in this area. We also need to avoid shaming or blaming ourselves or others for unconscious bias – this is unhelpful and will not address the cause.  Instead, follow the above steps and open a dialogue about this issue, then we can help to break down barriers and make our settings more inclusive places.

The year 2020 may have gone down in history as the year the world changed, but let’s make 2021 a revolutionary year where we truly tackle racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and other discriminatory attitudes within early childhood. And it starts with each of us, reflecting on ourselves and actively addressing our biases.

References and additional reading

  • Dee, T., & Gershenson, S. (2017). Unconscious Bias in the Classroom: Evidence and Opportunities. Mountain View, CA: Google Inc.
  • Tate, S. A., & Page, D. (2018). Whiteliness and institutional racism: hiding behind (un)conscious bias. Ethics & Education, 13(1), 141–155.

About the author:

Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin has written three books – “Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children” , “School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning” and “Calling all Superheroes: Supporting and Developing Superhero Play in the Early Years” and is working on a fourth looking at “Developing a Loving Pedagogy in the Early Years”.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email info@tamsingrimmer.co.uk

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