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Inherent bias and white privilege – a reflection and learning opportunity on Stephen Lawrence’s anniversary

Written by KickOff@3 volunteer Verity Bramwell

When Michael first asked me if I’d consider writing an article for KickOff@3 for the 27th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s death, my gut reaction was that I’m definitely not informed or qualified enough to pass comment on any aspect of this. I’m a 27-year-old white woman who’s grown up in St Albans, also known as “millionaire row – where the average house costs £2.2 mil”. I by no means live in a million-pound house, nor did I go to private school, but it’s still a far cry from the streets of Eltham where Stephen grew up and tragically took his last breath.

 

My first thought was “what could I possibly have to say of value that can contribute to the conversation that’s so vitally important, even 27 years later?”. My second thought was “this makes me feel uncomfortable”, commenting on such a racial, political, historical, discriminative and segregating issue. I didn’t want to offend anyone, I didn’t want to be inaccurate, and in the same breath I didn’t want to condone white privilege or condemn my white peers. But then I realised two things. The first, that The Stephen Lawrence Trust has a mission of giving children and young people a strong voice in driving social change and creating a society that treats everyone with fairness and respect. Diversity and inclusion are about giving everybody opportunities and treating them fairly and with respect. Just because I’m white, it doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to contribute to the discussion on racism, because we all have equal value. The second thing I realised was that this isn’t about me. It isn’t about how I feel or what my fears are. It’s about all the people who experience racism on a daily basis still to this day, and it’s about everyone who lives with their white privilege and refuses to acknowledge it or work to overcome it or their inherent bias. That is what this article is about.

 

I was speaking with a friend and telling them about my article and I gave them the title. They’re also a white St Albanite. Their first response was “Who is the target audience as that title sounds very academic?”. This immediately led to a little irritation from me, because straight away I was drawn to the fact that for a white person, terms such as inherent bias and white privilege are abstract, whereas for members of the BAME community, I can only imagine they are concepts they have to face every single day and there’s absolutely nothing hypothetical about them. For white people these concepts are academic, but for BAME individuals, it’s their everyday life and this just goes to demonstrate exactly what white privilege can look like. I’m not saying she was wrong in her suggestion that maybe I should use less formal language. I guess feedback from this article will tell me.

 

The situation behind the idea for this article is related to a fundraising event KickOff@3 were planning and with which I was helping out. The fundraiser was going to be a Caribbean themed evening with food, music and laughter. The event was called Carib Chill Runninz and was raising money for a St Albans suicide prevention charity who’s engaged community is predominantly white (probably because it’s based in St Albans and because suicide is even more of a taboo subject in BAME communities). Ticket sales for the event were not where we wanted or needed them to be for the success of the evening.

 

So, one evening, after a catch up with Michael, I sat there thinking to myself what the root of the issue could be. Although the charity had been helping us market the event, the individuals receiving that marketing were likely to be mostly white. I looked at myself as an example of the general audience receiving word of the event and thought “what would my gut instinct be?”. I concluded (correctly or incorrectly, I guess we’ll never really know) that it was highly probable the root of the issue came down to inherent bias. If I had no affiliation with KickOff@3 and a charity I supported sent me the marketing blurb that I’d helped write, what would I instinctively think when reading it? The answer was “this event doesn’t really apply to me because it’s a Caribbean theme”.

 

Reading that now, having explicitly written it down, it sounds absolutely absurd. I love rum. I love the Caribbean. I love people and cultures regardless of race and origin. I love music, I love dancing and I love charity. But nevertheless that was my gut reaction, so I sat with that for a while. My next step was to speak to others and suggest that maybe this could be part of the problem. I spoke to Michael and also to Shane (a KickOff@3 Ambassador) and they agreed there could be a lot of truth in the conclusion I had reached and we should maybe look at adapting our marketing. Next, I spoke to others who were white and explained the same conclusion I had come to. The reaction was very different. Immediately it was a rejection that this could have anything to do with their race and ethnicity and was most likely due to people having other plans. They even cited the fact that they had black family and were most definitely not racist.

 

This was about 7 months ago, and in my own time, I return to these discussions and contemplate what it means for society. That probably sounds very deep, but it was one simple conversation that started me on the path of questioning why people are so afraid of acknowledging their inherent bias. By its nature, they didn’t choose it. They’ve been wrapped up in it through the cultures and communities they’ve grown up in. But I think that we, as a society, White, Black, Asian, Latino, Native and any other group, need to work together to overcome inherent bias. I asked a friend of mine to proof my article when it was finished; someone who was aware of the fundraising event mentioned above. I decided it’s pertinent to add their comments as they’re really important: “I guess what goes through my head is “I’m not part of that community so I might not be welcome” and “If I do go, would I be seen as in some way belittling someone else’s culture” (the whole thing about ‘cultural appropriation’ is difficult). Either way, I can’t win unless I push my comfort levels and find out that actually neither of those worries were real. So perhaps it takes people to put themselves in a position of discomfort in order to revise their inherent bias.”. It takes effort from everyone to push out of our comfort zones so that we can learn and grow. I guess that’s why I agreed to write this article in the first place.

 

One thing I have learnt from reading about history is that any group that is discriminated against, ends up having to ‘be the bigger person’ if they want to secure a better quality of life and equality for themselves and their loved ones. I’m not going to comment on the right or wrong (in a moral sense) of it taking those who are discriminated against to support those who are prejudiced to enact change. Our culture is so riddled with racism and political correctness that this seems to have generated a phobia of being seen as racist amongst the white community. This in turn is having a direct impact (in my opinion) on the current state of racism because it means white people are so afraid of being seen as racist, they can’t or won’t acknowledge their inherent bias. I don’t believe inherent bias is our fault, but it is our fault if we don’t work to be self-aware and overcome it.

 

I’ve talked a lot about inherent bias in the context of the white community, but I really need to emphasise this isn’t something exclusive to white people. Every culture, every community, every individual will have their own inherent bias. I’ve spoken about my perceived understanding of white inherent bias because this is the element I have experience of. Every single individual will have their inherent bias towards ‘what a black man is’, as a father, a partner, a son or any other role, just like we will all have our understanding of ‘what a white man is’.

 

I have no idea if you’re sat here reading and thinking “this woman is talking absolute rubbish” or “how dare she tell us we have to support people with inherent bias when it’s us that’s continuously faced prejudice”. But I guess what I really mean is, if we can create one single community where we stop seeing each other in terms of colour, religion, ethnicity, social standing or origin, and instead see each other as people, then we all benefit. In no uncertain terms am I saying we need to turn a blind eye to racism. But I do believe there is a difference between someone who through exposure to culture and society has an inherent bias, whom with support and guidance can look at ways they can reduce that inherent bias, and someone who has racist attitudes and outlooks.

 

It’s important to understand that we’re only as aware as we are aware. Just like an alcoholic may reject the self-awareness needed to understand they have a problem, some people do not currently possess the skills to have the self-awareness to acknowledge and consider their inherent bias. The difficult part is for us to differentiate between the two, support the right people, and educate, rebuff and reject the others.

 

 

The irony is not lost on me that I’m asking BAME members to give when you’ve had so much taken from you already. But to honour those who have faced persecution and prejudice, we must put aside our differences, our preconceived injustices. For it is a collective, universal responsibility to help all individuals to expand their horizons and learn and consider other perspectives, experiences and cultures. I believe, left to their own devices, those unwilling to explore and understand their inherent bias and area of privilege will never learn anything else and it’s in everyone’s interest for that not to be the history that is written. If we can filter out our attitudes that come from segregation, difference, resentment and anger, then we can move forward with attitudes that come from love, acceptance, celebration and compassion. For we are all from Mother Earth and we all have humanity in common.