Resources for Understanding Racial Bias

Leading Black inclusion in the UK

Resources for Understanding Racial Bias

An undercover officer is patrolling the streets of Oakland. Let's call him Sam. It's summer and it's hot. Sam's worked enough years on the force to know that long summer days can lead to short tempers and he's alert as he scans passing faces. As he reaches the corner he squints at a glass office tower that fills the block; then, something catches his eye on the hill to the left. There's a man standing there and something seems off. The guy’s beard is scraggly, his clothes are torn, he's out of place in the sea of business suits squirrelling around him. The man is Black, maybe mid 30s, a similar build and skin tone as Sam. The officer feels a familiar tingle on his neck and says to himself “something is not right with this guy”.

Empowerment Programme

He takes a few steps up the hill and the man starts down in Sam's direction. “What's he up to?” - the cop wonders. As he gets closer, the nervous feeling gets more intense. “Could he have a gun?” Sam quickly looks him up and down for a tell-tale bulge in his waistband. Nope, he doesn't appear to be reaching into his pockets for a weapon either. In fact, he's not really doing anything remarkable except slowly walking towards him. Still, Sam can't shake the feeling that this guy is armed. Then, as he crosses the street towards the building, Sam loses sight of him. Then, he finds him again. Now, the man is inside the glass building and he's acting strange: when Sam quickened his pace, so he does too; when Sam slows down, so does he. Now, Sam's convinced something's about to go down and he has to act now.

He turns to confront the man just as the man turns to. They stand face to face. The officer looked into his eyes and something strikes him with a jolt. He's looking at his own reflection in a mirrored glass wall. He's a black undercover cop and he's just profiled himself. He was the person he feared. As Sam continues to look into the suspect size, his own eyes, he asked himself: how is this possible?’

(You can listen to this story here If you are a teacher and you would like an activity to do with your students using this story, please go here).

This real story provides an idea about how pervasive biases can be and how they can influence all of us. Jennifer Eberhardt shared this story in her insightful book ‘Biased’.

What are biases? What is racial bias?

Biases are our general preferences for or against certain people based on one or more aspects we can see about their social identity or group membership (gender, race, age, disability, etc.)

In other words, and following Verna Myers, biases are the "stories we make up about people before we know who they actually are."

Therefore, racial bias are the stories we make up about people based exclusively on their ethnic origin.

Girl inblue denim shirt

Why is it important to understand and address racial bias?

Because racial bias can shape our perceptions and decisions, and it explains:

  • Why Black students are disproportionately disciplined at schools more than their White peers for the same behaviour.

  • Why candidates with more English-sounding names are more likely to be called to job interviews.

  • Why Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by police than white people in England and Wales.

How biases are formed?

Our brains create categories to make sense of the thousands of stimuli we are bombarded every single day. We create categories to understand everything, including people.

Often, our environment does not provide us an opportunity to meet people who are different to us, and because we live in society, we tend to learn about others mainly by stories we hear by our families, friends, the media, … The problem with this is that they usually rely on unfair stereotypes.

Let’s go back to our initial story. The behaviour of a person walking in the street, even with a bit of an unkempt appearance and walking at different speed at times would not have caught the attention of the officer if he were White. However, the stereotype that labels Black as dangerous was activated in his mind, and he acted based on that bias.

black man with coffe

What can you do about it? You can start with this:

  • Become aware of your own biases – you can take the implicit bias test in race by the University of Harvard here. Having biases does not mean that we will act biased; awareness is key to trigger reflection and break a biased response.

  • Slow down to identify your own biases to avoid the impact they may have on your actions. For instance, when you are about to make a decision at work, you can stop and ask yourself if it is based on objective parameters.

  • Read books about other people’s lives written by people different to you. Empathy is not only about putting yourself in others’ shoes, but also connecting with their feelings to understand how different people experience life.

We all have biases. Therefore, as Professor Binna Kandola warns us: the difference between us is some recognise we have them, and others will continue believing they have none. This is key for two reasons: firstly, people who believe they don’t have biases are likely to act more biased: and secondly, even by just recognising our own biases, we are in a better position to tackle them.

Bibliography

Do you want to work with us to overcome racial bias and racism?

Carter

E. (2020)

Unwinding Prejudice Course

Eberhardt

J. (2019)

Biased, The New Science of Race and Inequality

Perera

J. (2020)

How Black Working Class Youth are criminalised and excluded in the English School System – A London Case Study, Institute of Race Relations.

Activity Exploring Racial Bias

Intended for secondary students – please, adapt to your own students’ age and pace.

Materials you will need:
Article on Understanding Racial Bias by Black Leaders here
Podcast with the story here (0.00 / 2.18 min) – please, include link to the article in the website

  • You could introduce the topic to your students, or just letting them know that doay they are going to explore a very important issue.

  • Tell your students that they are going to listen to a story and you will ask them some questions immediately after.

  • Stop the audio after the second paragraph (at min. 1.45).

  • Ask some students to let you know what is happening. Make sure every student understands what is going on.

  • Now, ask your students to discuss in pairs and agree how this story is going to end.

  • Invite some students to share with the group: why do they think the story it is going to end that way? Why have they chosen that end?

  • Let them hear the rest of the story.

  • Ask your students what has happened. Does any student find out what has happened?

  • Make sure you tell them this is a real story shared at the book Biased by a police officer.

  • Ask them how they feel about the end of the story. You could even ask them how does this link to racial bias and what is racial bias in their own words. Invite your students provide their ideas to you.

  • Explore biases further with your students – you can use the definitions provided in the article.

  • After that, ask your students to provide you’re their own responses to: What are biases? Where do they come from? Do we all have biases?

  • Now, ask them to explore racial bias. You share the data provided in the article in the section ‘Why is it important to understand and address racial bias?’ How do they feel about that data?

  • What ideas do they have to end racial bias. They could work in groups and you could support them making them consider: would it be important that we meet different people? Would it help to engage in conversations with people different to us?

  • You could end the lesson sharing the 3 ways provided in the article to tackle our biases.