Your prejudice is unconscious, but it’s still there

This week, it turns out I have rather a lot to say about the state of feminism, in particular about calling out privilege.

Today I’m going to write about something I haven’t written about in a while: psychology. Specifically, implicit biases. I’ve written two posts about this before, mostly relating to the topic of racism (see here and here). While I’d recommend reading the two pieces in full, I’ll summarise here.

In short, we all have a lot of biases that we don’t consciously notice, but manifest very subtly in our language and our behaviour. We are often slower to associate positive characteristics with people of colour, or faster to associate family roles with women, and so forth. These little biases manifest in our behaviour: we might sit further away from a person of colour, or use very abstract language which assigns blame to a member of an outgroup. People in oppressed groups often internalise at least some of this implicit bias: women may display slightly negative attitudes towards women, for example.

Most importantly, people who hold these negative implicit biases don’t know that they do, and don’t think that they are prejudiced. Yet their biases have real consequences in the real world.

The good news is, implicit biases can be overcome. While they are quick to form and harder to undo than the conscious beliefs, it is possible. And the first stage in unlearning these biases is awareness. It is then possible to educate and to reduce these biases, and their effects. This has actually been done, and with some success. It also helps if people displaying these biases are shown that this is actually not what the majority believes; it helps them overcome these beliefs.

This body of research is, of course, very pertinent to what some refer to as “call-out culture”, and goes some way to explaining why rather a lot of feminists are rather resistant to having the fact that they are displaying rather problematic behaviours or using problematic language, or just generally articulating beliefs that are not OK and oppress other women.

They don’t think they are prejudiced against women of colour, or trans women, or working class women, or sex workers, or whoever their target is. And a lot of them are completely unaware of this (though some may try to intellectualise their prejudices).

And it can be quite horrifying having it brought to your attention that actually you are seething with prejudice that you never noticed within yourself. Isn’t it only bad people who are prejudiced? Well, no. Research into implicit bias actually tends to show that most people are kind of prejudiced and I’ve never seen anything correlating it with Being A Bad Person–no matter how this variable is operationalised.

The question is, when awareness is raised of these biases, is what do you do with this information?  Some people decide to make a conscious effort to change what they do, to learn, to overcome this. Others pretend it is not a problem.

It is, though. It really is. I cannot stress enough the implications of these implicit biases and how important it is to try to get over them. Being called out does not mean you are a bad person, it merely means the back of your brain needs a bit of retraining. Get to it.

Retraining is painless, particularly in comparison with what your brain had been doing before.

Call-out week: a semi-coherent series of things on my mind

  1. When silencing isn’t silencing and sisterhood isn’t sisterhood
  2. Your prejudice is unconscious, but it’s still there
  3. “Call-out culture” isn’t a thing (but it should be)
  4. Self-doubt and receptivity to privilege-checking
  5. Confessions of a former arsehole


This post was inspired by a conversation with the lovely Cel.

15 thoughts on “Your prejudice is unconscious, but it’s still there”

  1. Do you think that there are ways of calling people out that are more likely lead to people challenging and retraining their unconscious bias than others?

    And do you think that there is an element of the process of calling people out, particularly in forums that are very short-form and lacking in vocal tone, that can lead to people being triggered if they have experience of bullying, emotional abuse, etc…?

    1. You’ve just given me an idea for the concluding blog to this series–stop “call-out culture” being an imaginary enemy and make it an actual thing where you should reasonably expect to be challenged if you talk crap, and it might not be polite.

  2. Having grown up in an environment where racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. were ubiquitous my brain is a minefield of prejudices outside of my conscious control. For the most part I think I am aware of them and they really just appear like flash judgements in my brain that I can discard before they do any damage, but they make me feel bad and I don’t seem to be able to get rid of them. How do you unlearn these things?

    1. There is no short term fix. Studies show that techniques such as implementation intentions just backfire eventually. The best thing is to make sure you’re exposed to counter-examples such as reading about women in science and philosophy or the few openly gay sportsmen.

  3. Cool. Well I will read your third blog with interest. I’ll probably continue calling people who aren’t myself out politely but I’m certainly interested in hearing other people’s approaches to the issue. Thanks.

  4. My mom was raised in a very racist household back in an era when racism was the norm. As she got older, however, and meant more people of different races, she realized that what she’d been taught wasn’t the truth, and set about educating herself. She was probably the most color-blind person I ever knew, had friends of all races and religions, and didn’t judge anyone. She raised her children to be the same way. I think, to a large extent, racism is something you learn, and it can be unlearned if you want too do it. It takes time and effort, but it came be done. Both my parents were a testament to this, as they came of age in the 1940s, when racism here in the US was still pretty much the norm.

    My mom said once that learning new things and changing your mind was never easy, but it was worth it in the end. And she was right.

  5. But implicit social bias is not the only kind of cognitive bias; there are many, and they interrelate in some surprising ways. One of the more common biases (so much that I’d say it’s as nearly-universal as confirmation bias) is fundamental attribution error, in which we ascribe the failures or mistakes of others to some trait that is inherent to them, and exclude or diminish the importance of circumstances and context.

    So in this case, you’re attributing implicit bias to people, assuming that they have an inherent prejudice, without really much evidence other than that they might not agree with you on certain things. More than likely you also commit the second part of the error, which is to *over*-value the influence of specific choices and circumstances on your own behaviour (i.e. you’ve taken the time to educate yourself & overcome your biases, whereas others are just prejudiced). So I’m not sure your recommendation to your readers is so safe; yes it’s a good idea to look within ourselves for biases, but it’s a very individual business & I’m not sure it can be taught from outside.

    Have you seen the latest Project Implicit research? They have this test in which you have to choose to “protect” a particular person (a young white male, to control for other biases), whereas in the presence of a different one you can do what you want. I usually score very low on their bias tests, but I scored “slight bias against” the guy I was forced to “protect”. Now I haven’t seen the result of course, but I wonder if it’s not the case that making us choose in favour of some group/attribute actually creates a bias against them? In which case this whole business of stomping about picking people up on minor infractions might turn out to have been counter-productive! Which would be a damn shame.

    1. Your result =/= results of a whole research project. Dear oh dear.

      Also, I think you’re fundamentally misinterpreting fundamental attribution error and how it pertains to implicit prejudices.

      But nice try 🙂

      1. That’s a pretty dismissive response to a good faith attempt to respond to your post. Perhaps your own implicit biases are operating?

        Marina makes an excellent point in that there are numerous cognitive biases that all operate in conjunction with one another in complex ways. With respect to your post here, the fundamental attribution error seems especially pertinent. Yes, we know it’s true that people can hold prejudices and biases that they are not aware of. But we also know it’s true that people have a tendency to explain the behaviour and beliefs as others as caused by some character trait or disposition, rather than by reference to situational and contextual factors. So in this example, we might be prone to explain someone’s actions as caused by prejudice and bigotry, rather than by, say, lack of information, or even reasonable disagreement. (That definitely went on with respect to TWR – there was an assumption by some people that retweeting a blog written by a transphobe must be evidence of bigotry, rather than just not knowing that the blogger in question was a transphobe).

        Add to the FAE the fact that nobody is immune to implicit bias – even yourself – then the fact that we know these biases exist cannot be used to justify “calling out” in any given case. The person you’re calling out may well be implicitly prejudiced without realising it. But it’s also possible that you are making the FAE, or that you hold implicit biases yourself about the person you’re calling out. The literature on implicit bias suggests that knowing about the existence of such biases, even knowing about our own, does not render us immune to them – we continue to make them regardless. So as far as I can see, the fact that implicit bias exists can’t in itself give support to either party in a dispute, and it certainly can’t justify all cases of calling out as obviously legitimate. Yes, we know that implicit racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia exist. From this it does not follow that it is always present, and every time you think you’ve spotted it, you’re correct. That seems a misuse of the theory of implicit bias. From what I understand, its proponents recognise this, and suggest its primary use is in instructing us to design institutions and procedures in such a way as to minimise the effects of implicit bias, not in grounding specific accusations of bigotry in the absence of further evidence.

        1. Wow, OK, before your picture showed up, I totally thought you were a dude trying to mansplain something to me. Kind of smacked of that.

          Right, so the fundamental attribution error refers to disposition or a trait. Implicit biases are not these. They really, really aren’t, and yes, they can be caused by a lack of information–and what better way of pointing out that someone is sorely lacking in information than by pointing it out to them (also known as, calling out).

          Secondly, the literature on implicit biases–unless it has changed radically in the few years since I did a dissertation on it at masters level–suggests that they can be changed, and, crucially are probably there. I do wish you’d grounded yourself in my earlier summaries of it before replying.

          Not sure why you suddenly started going on about a Twitter account, since this was a general post for information, but this might go some way to explaining why you decided to write this weird response.

        2. Also I don’t think everyone ever argues every single call-out is correct. It’s a definite straw-woman. The thing is, it’s likely to be based on better information than you have, and any information is better than that you alone possess.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.