While the 2017 horror movie ‘Get Out’ ends with a genre-appropriate level of stabbing, impaling, and general blood-letting the climax was by no means the most uncomfortable part of the film for many viewers.
It begins with our handsome, amiable black protagonist Chris preparing for a visit to his upbeat white girlfriend Rose’s family home in the suburbs. “Do your parents know that I’m black?” asks Chris. “Should they?” replies Rose.
When they arrive, Rose’s father ties himself up in increasingly awkward knots attempting to signal his liberal credentials without ever saying the word ‘black’. His repeated insistence that “I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could” becomes a running joke.
It’s hard (at least at first, before things get ugly) not to sympathise with the father. He’s trying his best! He just wants to make his guest comfortable! And it is also hard not to wince as Chris is obliged to nod along politely with the clumsy attempts to bond.
The myth of the colour-blind society
It’s probably no coincidence that Barack Obama was used as the well-meaning father’s reference point. Obama’s election in 2008 was only the latest in several moments in US (and thus World) history when many allowed themselves to dream of a future where race was no longer an impediment to success. This was often expressed as a wish for a ‘colour-blind’ society.
And therein lies the problem. This is a fine wish, but not one rooted in reality. Most people aren’t blind. And research shows that even blind people perceive race! Law professor Osagie Obasogie published a book, ‘Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind’ based on his research of the perception of race in people blind from birth. His stated intention was to debunk the comforting but unhelpful notion that race is only ‘skin-deep’ – that it isn’t a social and political issue.
A wish for a ‘colour-blind’ society is essentially a wish that the problem would just go away. As is a wish for a ‘gender-blind’ society or a ‘class-blind’ society, or a ‘disability-blind’ society. And while there is no doubt that the wish for it all to just go away often comes from a legitimate wish for universal fairness, I suspect that it just as often comes from a desire not to have any more uncomfortable conversations about race, gender, class, disability, or the differentiating factor of your choice.
Because these conversations can be uncomfortable, can’t they?
Uncomfortable for who?
But here’s the thing – they tend to be uncomfortable for people in groups with more social power. White people, men, the middle and upper-class, the able-bodied. For black people, women, working-class people, disabled people they are often too urgent to be uncomfortable.
Of course, this presumes that you either have social power or you don’t. The truth is that almost everybody is born with some level of social disadvantage, and some level of social privilege. And if most people might be inclined to distance themselves from a label like ‘disadvantaged’, even stronger seems to be the desire to reject the label ‘privileged’.
It can be uncomfortable to think of ourselves as ‘privileged’. It seems to imply a free pass, a life of ease. An absolutely natural reaction when the term privilege is thrown at us is to rebuff it with a story about the hard work we’ve invested and the struggles we’ve faced to get to where we are today. It’s as if to accept that we’ve been the beneficiary of good fortune somewhere down the line cancels all of this out.
But when it comes to privilege it’s all relative! I can quite imagine that a working-class white person who has had to strive hard to create a successful career for themselves might feel annoyed to be described as ‘privileged’ purely because of their ethnicity. But they may well feel even more annoyed to have read the claim a few years ago by Benedict Cumberbatch’s manager that his client’s acting career has been held back by his private school education and posh accent.
The privilege of being ‘normal’
While acknowledging one’s own privilege can be uncomfortable because it seems to cancel out our own endeavours, refusing to do so undoubtedly has the impact of cancelling out the endeavours of others who have not had the good fortune we have.
Acknowledging and owning our privilege is an act of warriorship.
One of the most significant privileges conferred on certain groups by society is that of being ‘the norm’. This selective norming is encoded in our language. Notice that when an author, or filmmaker, or CEO, is white, heterosexual or male he is referred to simply as a ‘writer’ or a ‘director’, or a ‘business leader’. Their counterparts of other ethnicities, sexualities, or gender are referred to as ‘black author’, ‘queer director’ or ‘female business leader’.
Some would argue that this language is just a reflection of inequality – we say ‘female business leader’ because statistically there are fewer women than men in such positions. But the relationship between language and reality is not unidirectional – it both reflects and informs. Where certain groups are considered ‘the norm’ and others ‘outliers,’ culture creates reasons why some are ‘in’ and others ‘out’ – this is where stereotypes, prejudice, and biases come from.
Unconscious bias and what to do about it
If acknowledging our own privilege is an act of warriorship, even more courageous is to acknowledge that with privilege comes bias. Not that only people with social privilege are capable of bias. It just tends to be that those biases favour those with social power, and disadvantage those without.
Often, we are not even aware of our stereotypes and prejudices. Researchers at Harvard created the Implicit Association Test (IAT), which ingeniously – and often shockingly – claims to tease out our subconscious feelings about various groups.
While recent studies have cast doubt on the reliability of the IAT and tests like it there are countless other studies that demonstrate that bias is everywhere we look whether we like it or not. In a 2003 study, researchers sent out identical résumés to employers, except some had stereotypically white names and others had stereotypically black names; the white names were 50 percent more likely to be called back for interviews.
Even more poignantly, a famous experiment in the 1940s, “The Dolls Test” by psychologists Mamie and Kenneth Clark, involved asking children between the ages of three and seven to choose their favourite of four dolls. The dolls – representing different ethnic groups – were identical except for their colour. Most of the children expressed a preference for the white doll and assigned more positive characteristics to it. This was the case whether the children were white or black.
Here is a truth so uncomfortable that the desire to look away is understandable.
And this is why now, in 2020, we need leaders courageous enough to name prejudice where they see it. In recent years toxic ideologies that many of us complacently assumed to be things of the past have re-emerged under the cloak of free speech, social media providing the oxygen for them to flourish again.
We need leaders courageous enough not just to respond to prejudice where it is obvious, but to be alert to the subtle, eminently deniable ways it can express itself; to start the conversations about inclusivity and diversity, rather than to wait until a ‘problem’ emerges; to have the uncomfortable conversations – not just with ourselves (though that’s a start), or with people similar to us (though that is essential too), but with people different to us.
Most importantly we need leaders courageous enough to own their privilege and acknowledge and challenge their own biases.
- How are you privileged? In what ways have you inherited social power or advantage because of what you look like, where and when you were born, and the opportunities you were gifted?
- How are you biased? Do some honest self-reflection. Which are some groups who – in your heart of hearts – you know you feel less positive towards? Often this may be something that operates less on a ‘head’ level, and more in the ‘gut’. We need to listen to that gut message, even when we fear that we may not like what it is telling us…
- What are you going to do next? We can own our privilege, but we cannot change our history. Being fortunate, in whatever small way, is not something to feel embarrassed about. We’d even say that having biases is nothing to be ashamed of, it’s just how the human brain is wired – to prefer the safety of the familiar and fear the unfamiliar.
So what do you intend to do? Research shows that the most powerful antidote to bias – whether conscious or unconscious – is first-hand experience.
How could you learn more about groups that you feel less positive towards?
How might you even initiate contact with somebody from that group? Not with a view to making that person a participant in a social experiment – but simply to connect and to learn.