Unconscious bias: rethink & reject– By Esther Armah

Esther Armah

Unconscious bias. It’s a term embedded in sectors, industries and organizations, used mostly within the world of diversity, equity and inclusion training. It means making decisions rooted in instinct not analysis.

Unconscious bias says we are safe with people who look, think and act similar to us. Such bias, it suggests, is not intentional, and that those instincts should not have punitive intention attached to them.

It’s time to rethink and reject unconscious bias.

We are a world shaped by systems. Here in Ghana and across Africa, the system of colonialism has shaped our world, how we see ourselves, and each other. It has shaped beliefs, and influenced and impacted markets, industry, education – entire nations. In America, that same shaping was done by enslavement, in South Africa by apartheid. Each of those systems was built with clear, focused intention.

It was rooted in legal structures, labour structures, environmental structures, religious structures, it was attached to bodies – black and white. Those systems had entrenched inequity, and were enforced with brutality. Each of these systems was built to create a market that would always privilege some, and punish others. They were built to last. And last they have.

There has been five hundred years of systems that fixed markets to cater to building wealth and sustaining wellbeing for entire portions of the population rooted in race, also class. And while the form of the systems has changed, the legacy lingers.

In our contemporary world, the legacy of those systems shapes our businesses, our sectors, our industries, our politics, our narrative, our education and our nations. Most powerfully, they shape how we see ourselves and each other. We are inheritors of those systems; what they did, what they were designed to do, how they were designed to work, and how they were sustained.

Sustaining them is, in part, about what I call an ‘emotional economy’. The emotional economy explores a belief in who you are, and how that belief is nurtured by what you are taught, and how you are taught it. That teaching emerges from systems that shape our values; family, community, places of worship and education, media and our politics.

2020 has been a call to global collective consciousness for millions about the systems of inequity. The pandemic has brought inequity in healthcare into sharp focus in the West, and further highlighted our dismal healthcare infrastructure here in Ghana. The converging pandemics of coronavirus, police brutality and protests offered added insight about systemic inequity and brutality for many more. With these successive horrors, a global call to action was made. That call requires a different kind of action – one that rethinks and rejects unconscious bias.

If the systems were built with an intention to fix the market in one person’s favor – that was not, and is not, unconscious. It was intentional.

We are the inheritors of these systems. They taught us, we learned from them, they shaped us. We sustain them through action, and inaction. To turnaround a failing business, a leader must stem the financial blood loss, so they start by asking why is it failing? What change must happen in order to take it out of the red and put it back into the black? How do we make it profitable? They may decide – and often decide – overheads need to be drastically cut; the business is hemorrhaging due to poor use of resources – fiscal and human. They may decide to reduce the workforce to make that happen. That is substantive, transformative change. What they don’t do is create language to explain why it’s happening, while continuing to watch it happen.

That is what unconscious bias does. It builds a new system that helps sustain the old ones. What it also does is make us feel better about the systems in which some flourish, and some flounder. And that is what has happened. Unconscious bias has become part of a profitable industry of diversity, equity and inclusion that rarely tackles the particular thing that made all of these systems possible – power, and the abuse of power.

Unconscious bias allows you to protect your power, it allows for ongoing profit, while engaging in training to somehow do something about this so-called unconscious bias. It is what I call ‘tweak-o-nomics’. That is where businesses, industry, nation tweaks at the edges of an issue, rather than forensically engage it in order to transform. Tweak-o-nomics does not touch your power, it allows for the illusion of change, it does not ignite sustainable change.

Systems are either upheld or they are dismantled. These are the two options.

This year of devastation, loss, turbulence, brutality also offers us an important opportunity. It has given us a path to reset, rethink and reject. That is what should be done with unconscious bias. Reset, rethink and reject. The dismantling of systems is substantive work, it is heavy lifting, it is about transformative action. It requires we stare long and hard into how systems of inequity are upheld, how we uphold them, and then commit and engage the work of dismantling.

This labor is not equal or singular, because the systems are not equal or singular – that too is about power, and a sophistication within the use, and abuse of that power. The world of diversity, equity and inclusion has too often put the burden on people color to reimagine systems so that they are somehow less inequitable. That applies with gender too. Even the passage of a document as crucial as the Affirmative Action Bill here in Ghana becomes a battleground, where we see how power, gender and systems collide to restrict progress.

That is why Emotional Justice is so crucial. One of its four pillars is ‘Emotional Patriarchy’. This is when society caters to the feelings, needs, insecurities, vulnerabilities, of men – white men at the top, but black men too – no matter the cost or consequence to society, to women. The systems of inequity are designed to hold and maintain power for men. And that is why dismantling is both crucial, challenging, and painful.

We cannot dismantle power through policy alone. Businesses and industries create policy as a foundational guide to behaviour, or as a corrective to problematic behavior. A policy document represents an intention. But businesses measure success based on outcomes, not intentions. So, if we apply that to the SDGs – a powerhouse policy document to build gender equity – that is a lofty intention. To implement such an intention requires the substantive heavy lifting of dismantling systems, and doing healing work for those on the receiving end of such systems, which have transformed their lives and the lives of generations. Our approach to issues of gender hijacks the intentions of the SDGs and makes their likely implementation unlikely. It is because our approach is designed to maintain power, a power that was unearned and is entrenched through systems of inequity.

Power. What work are we willing to do to reimagine it, and our relationship to it, and the systems maintained by it? It is here that we must engage Emotional Justice, a visionary framework for racial healing, that includes the work of dismantling systems, and engaging power. We can – and should – approach that work with equity and empathy. What we cannot – and must not do – is enable the continuation of phrases that help stall systems that should simply no longer stand. They have never stood without our contribution, action and engagement.

So, here we stand, inheritors of systems that we did not build, but that entrench power, encourage and reward the abuse of power, profit some and punish others.

Are we willing to do the challenging, necessary but rewarding work to dismantle systems that prevent progress, or would we rather protect our power and practice tweak-o-nomics?

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