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Bigotry seldom announces itself 

Most white supremacists are not as explicit about their bigotry as Steve Hofmeyr. Most sexual predators are not as brazen as Harvey Weinstein. Most homophobes are not as transparent as a dodgy pastor telling me that my sexual orientation is the work of demons.

The biggest volume of bigoted behaviour lacks this crass character. Most bigotry is implicit in our attitudes and actions. Bigotry does not routinely announce itself like a giant pimple on a teenager’s face.

That is why most of us get mortally offended when someone points out to us that we have work to do. We all have the capacity for unconscious bias. But because we imagine that there is a gold standard of bigotry that only Hofmeyr or Weinstein can meet, we then, almost innocently, imagine ourselves to be wholly decent, beyond reproach and even praiseworthy allies in the pushback against bigotry.

This is wishful thinking. There is a long and complex spectrum of unacceptable attitudes and behaviour that needs careful examination. The first step towards understanding the spectrum, and where each of us might be located along it, is to come to terms with the myth that only explicit or visibly violent forms of bigotry count as genuine bigotry. That is false, and obscures the greater problem of softer forms of harmful bigotry that are more commonplace.

I think, for example, of colourism that is so rife within the coloured community. I attended a primary school for coloured kids in Grahamstown. It was almost impossible to be chosen as head girl or head boy if you were dark-skinned or had “kinky” hair. If you were light in complexion with long, flowing hair like white people, your average academic marks, lack of sporting ability and lack of extramural achievement could be overlooked.

Would the teachers at my primary school think of themselves as bigoted? Not at all. Many, in fact, would regard any such description of them as unkind, if not wholly untrue and slanderous.

They would feel aggrieved because they lack the concept of unconscious bias: a set of unfair discriminatory attitudes and actions that operate so quietly and without explicit intention that you can almost be forgiven for not knowing what you are doing.

Unconscious bias can be displayed in respect of almost any trait. We do not often speak about accent bias, for example. Yet many of us unconsciously regard someone’s accent as an information-bearing trait that reliably tells us something about their character, educational background or intellectual prowess.

I have lost count of how many times a stranger’s attitude towards me has shifted visibly from when they first see me to when I start speaking. I had to earn the right to be treated decently with some linguistic dexterity.

There is also a perverse effect of the unconscious bias that kicks in here: you get rewarded at times for the “pleasant surprise” of upsetting the expectation someone had of you. You might even be complimented.

Compliments about “speaking well” are not genuine compliments. They are inadvertent confessions that you were stereotyped until you had disrupted the stereotype. In the context of an interview for a job, this can mean being regarded as an outsider, or even as incompetent, until you have proven the apparently legitimate assumption wrong.

But if you speak in the accent the interviewer imagined you to have, and do not get a job offer despite doing well on the core test scores for the job specs, a rationalising explanation is always at hand: “Eusebius was not the right fit for us!”

We have invented language games to mask our unconscious biases. I do not, as the head of talent in my organisation, have “work to do” on my hidden prejudices — because I have none. I was simply objective in my assessment of a mismatch between the firm’s culture and the candidate who coincidentally speaks English with “an accent”.

Just as an effeminate boy or man might not be promoted to a leadership position — not because the school or firm is institutionally homophobic but because, “objectively”, the person does not command the respect that is the cornerstone of leadership. Right? Again, language games are played as a substitute for recognising and eliminating unconscious biases.

Many victims of racism, sexism and homophobia are victims of unconscious bias rather than victims of explicit discrimination. It is crucial that institutions not only focus on eliminating visible forms of exclusion but also on the more insidious and nefarious forms of unconscious bias present in our society. 

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Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser
Eusebius McKaiser is a political and social analyst at the Wits Centre for Ethics. He is also a popular radio talk show host, a top international debate coach, a master of ceremonies and a public speaker of note. He loves nothing more than a good argument, having been both former National South African Debate Champion and the 2011 World Masters Debate Champion. His analytic articles and columns have been widely published in South African newspapers and the New York Times. McKaiser has studied law and philosophy. He taught philosophy in South Africa and England.

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