Is 'unconscious bias' just a convenient way to avoid acknowledging racism?

All of us have biases; snap judgements and assumptions that we make about groups of people based on a flawed system of beliefs.

These become discrimination – racism, sexism, ageism, ableism – when we act on these beliefs in a way that has a negative impact on people from these groups.

There has long been a narrative that some of our biased beliefs are conscious, and some are unconscious – meaning that we don’t even know they’re there.

‘Unconscious bias’ – or implicit bias – is frequently used to explain instances of systemic discrimination, like why a white boss might not promote a Black employee, for example, or why a Black child is more likely to be expelled from school.

The argument is that the behaviour is triggered by a deeply embedded belief that the individual is unaware of, rather than an act of conscious and intentional racism.

But if the outcome is the same, is calling it ‘unconscious’ simply an easy get-out clause for racist behaviour?

Is the concept of unconscious bias just a convenient way for people to avoid acknowledging racism, or taking any responsibility for their actions?

Can bias ever truly be ‘unconscious’?

‘Bias can indeed be genuinely unconscious, which is why one of the most important things that people can do to minimise the impact of their own biases is to get to know what they are,’ says Nic Hammarling, partner and head of diversity at inclusion training firm Pearn Kandola.

Existing research has shown that while explicit attitudes and demonstrations of racial prejudice have declined over the past few decades, implicit racist attitudes have not declined.

‘This is clearly indicative of something much more ingrained, that, for some, is unconscious,’ explains Nic.

‘From a technical perspective, unconscious bias is an important element of understanding racist attitudes. However, we often see people assuming that labelling something as an unconscious bias means that it is a fait accompli, which it most certainly is not.’

Diversity and inclusion facilitator Bilal Khan says it is possible for there to be things in your mind that you aren’t really aware of, but that we must be careful when we label things ‘unconscious’.

‘When we are talking about discrimination – racism, sexism, or any form of “ism” – to call those things “unconscious” takes away any form of responsibility and accountability to do something about it,’ Bilal tells

‘It ignores the fact that things are systemic, and locates the problem solely in the fact that something is randomly in your head.’

He says that the impact for people of colour is a clear message that people are not willing to acknowledge their part in perpetuating racism, or their role in creating change.

‘From a personal perspective, if someone blames their unconscious bias for something, it makes me feel as though they are actually not recognising their part in a wider system that is putting me at a disadvantage,’ says Bilal.

‘I think fear and fragility are the biggest barriers to creating systemic change.

‘People become so defensive when they hear the word “racism” or “antiracism”, about who they are, and the belief that we all have about ourselves that we are good people.

‘But we have to recognise that this is not an issue of morality. It’s not about whether anyone is a good person or a bad person. It’s about acknowledging a system that disadvantages people, and what part you play in that.’

Is unconscious bias training useful in the workplace?

When Keir Starmer took the knee and pledged to undertake unconscious bias training in the wake of the death of George Floyd, there was a barrage of criticism.

Critics said that in light of the Labour party’s alleged inaction on anti-Black racism in the past, the unconscious bias training – that turned out to be a 20-minute online video – felt like a watered-down and performative response to racism.

But is unconscious bias training always a pointless box-ticking exercise for corporations and businesses?

While it can be dangerous to simply label all of your individual biases as ‘unconscious’ – particularly if that is used as an excuse to not address or change them – that doesn’t mean their aren’t any benefits for people in professional spaces to learn more about unconscious biases and, crucially, how to limit the impact they have on behaviour.

‘Unconscious bias training is much like any other form of training – the quality of the design and the delivery is paramount. If you have a programme that is just designed to raise awareness but not do anything to change behaviour, then you can’t be surprised when no behaviour change takes place,’ says Nic.

‘A good quality unconscious bias programme moves on from raising awareness to focus on specific actions, based on research into what makes a difference. In turn, people leave the session knowing exactly what practical actions they can take.’ 

Bilal thinks that acknowledging and confronting our unconscious biases is crucially important – and that with the right approach and a willingness to do the work and ask the uncomfortable questions, it can be a powerful tool.

‘It’s about recognising what the ideas are that are held about a group of the people – and where those ideas came from,’ he explains.

‘So, for example, the idea that Black people are criminal. Where does that come from? Where have I consumed that idea? Where have I seen that idea? To what degree might it have affected the way I therefore interact with people? What have I not needed to think about before? What hasn’t been my experience?

‘You have to actually do some self-work to interrogate these ideas, and ask yourself these more reflective questions. And it is everybody’s job to do this.

‘To just just blame it on unconscious stuff and ignore it, that just neglects the fact that there is is a media that is racist, that there are books that you’ve read, or conversations you’ve been in that have been racist.

‘It’s so important that people don’t neglect these elements – the things that creates these biases – out of fear, or defence, and actually confront them.’

What is the alternative for unconscious bias training?

Unconscious bias is just one element of racism, and as such, workplace training to tackle racial inequality needs to dig a lot deeper.

‘Unconscious bias training as a standalone solution is unlikely to tackle all the diversity woes in an organisation,’ says Nic. 

Nic says monitoring, identifying and tackling adverse impact at key stages such as recruitment and promotion is critical. She also suggests conducting diversity reviews of succession plans to ensure the company is building a diverse pipeline, rather than leaving it to chance.

‘Having senior leaders and board members ask questions of their teams around the diversity of the promotion slate or candidate slate, and inclusion measures for different groups, is another practical step,’ she adds.  

‘A leader who cannot tell you the diversity of the high-potential tagged employees in their function, is one who has not got diversity and inclusion on their agenda.’

One of the biggest problems around diversity in the workplace is retention. Even if companies get people from different backgrounds in the door, a failure to build an inclusive culture in which they can progress and succeed, can cause people to leave or feel pushed out.

Nic says one of the most powerful things that decision-makers in organisations can do is to take a step back and look at the pattern of results, following appraisals, promotions and recruitment rounds. 

‘For example, from our live bias reviews, we know that in calibration meetings it’s easy to justify individual decisions about an employee,’ she says. ‘There is always information to suggest that someone is particularly good, bad, or on the borderline for something. 

‘So, step back and look at the trends in how all these decisions stack up for employees from different backgrounds. This will help you to identify and tackle ingrained bias. If the pattern of bias is there, it needs to be dealt with.’

Bilal says that the first step is for organisations to be proactive rather than reactive when it comes to issues of diversity and inclusion.

‘There is often so much fear in organisations to use the word “racist” or “racism” or “antiracism”. So, it’s important to be bolder in the language used,’ he adds.

‘They also need to actually embed that training. Often, unconscious bias training will be a one-off, and probably only for a select few individuals. Often, the training is not actually holistic – meaning it’s not embedded in the ongoing learning and development of teams, and in the cultures within a team.’

He says that any training like this needs to be a process that is deeply embedded in the systems of an organisation – from the onboarding and induction at a company, to regular monitoring and measurable results.

‘After the training, we need companies to hold themselves to account. Their commitment to anti-racism can’t just be the two-hour training session they did. It needs to be an ongoing process.’

The State of Racism

This series is an in-depth look at racism in the UK in 2020 and beyond.

We aim to look at how, where and why individual and structural racism impacts people of colour from all walks of life.

It’s vital that we improve the language we have to talk about racism and continue the difficult conversations about inequality – even if they make you uncomfortable.

We want to hear from you – if you have a personal story or experience of racism that you would like to share get in touch: [email protected]

Do you have a story to share? We want to hear from you.

Get in touch: [email protected].

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