Do our biases need to be addressed to tackle racial inequalities?

Earlier this month, Dr Tony Williams and Dr Jules Holroyd discussed implicit bias at an event linked to our Race Equality Strategy and Action Plan.

We caught up with Dr Tony Williams, Educational Psychologist and Co-director of the Faculty of Social Sciences Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (ED&I) Committee, about the importance of the University’s work in progressing race equality and understanding our own biases in a society with a history of structural racism.

Dr Tony Williams

It’s so important that we continue to have these serious conversations about racial equality, so that it’s always on the agenda and forms part of what the University does and is embedded in our University values.

Dr Tony Williams


How have you been involved in race equality work and achievements we have made as University so far?

I have been promoting diverse communities for a long time as part of my role as an educational psychologist and a lot of my work around equality and inclusion had involved working with schools. In 2016, I decided to get more involved in the University’s race equality work and was asked to be involved in the Faculty of Social Sciences ED&I committee and part of a task and finish group which was looking at differential attainment, now known as the awarding gap, between white students and Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students.

The Faculty of Social Sciences wanted to do some research to try to look at the factors that were significant in that awarding gap. From this, we produced a report in 2017 and made recommendations, a number of these were taken up by the University, one of these being a BAME staff network, which launched in 2018.

The BAME network was important for the University’s launch of the Race Equality Strategy and Action Plan in 2019, and with this the steering group was formed to look at the delivering the action plan. The University has recently committed to a two-year plan which will lead to the application for the Advance HE race equality charter and there are more plans to engage staff and students with this work.


What does the term implicit bias mean?

To me, implicit bias is related to socialisation and the way a person has been socialised. As we grow up in society, everyone develops different ways of being and ways of thinking about themselves and others. In this society recognising you are male or female will come with different expectations. For example, as a male you develop an understanding of what a male (boy) does based on your experience, which will be informed by the ideas related to gender that circulate within society.

As such biases are also very much influenced by our family and the community we live in, as well as the wider society and often that will structure the way you see the world.

 The issues of race inequality have been around for so long in this country and without sustained commitment and effort we are not going to make the changes we need to.

Implicit bias is tricky when talking about race in a post-colonial society because there is a social history of the ‘the west’ and that includes slavery. Then there is the generation of black people who were invited to this country to work and live who experienced explicit racism, that is well documented. Now you have further generations of black and white people who inherit a way of thinking about what being black means, they have been socialised into thinking in particular ways that are subtly informed by coloniality.

In many ways, implicit biases are problematic as they marginalise and disadvantage certain groups, but in order to overcome these biases people must do a little bit of additional learning to challenge their own assumptions about the world and begin to question why they think the way they do.

As people, we have to be able to examine these thoughts and be open to criticism, while also having the capacity to be open to self-critique. I think we are all a bit resistant to that and some people do not want their current view of the world to be questioned. This is why our work around race equality is important, to listen and challenge whilst being compassionate.

The issues of race inequality have been around for so long in this country and without sustained commitment and effort we are not going to make the changes we need to.


What is the difference between explicit biases versus implicit bias?

Explicit bias is more about what you know and are consciously aware of whereas implicit bias is about how you have been socialised and learned often subconsciously – it is often an automatic thought or assumption, but I think the difference between the two can be quite subtle.

I do not like using the word bias and talk to my students about positionality – we all have our own position in the world. We are located in time and space and have been brought up in a community. I think by acknowledging our positions, we can open up our thoughts to realise that there is more than one way of thinking about the world and there is a real opportunity to learn from others and their experiences.


Do you believe our biases are learned and therefore can be unlearned?

I believe so in relation to racism. I think when people learn or are educated into biased views it tends to be in an explicit racist attitude. For example, if you grew up and were taught in apartheid South Africa that you are a white person and that you have these rules and rights and other people who do not look like you do not – this would probably lead to a more explicitly racist view.

I think the danger is in the more subtle biases, where you are socialised to believe that only certain people do certain roles or certain people behave in certain ways. This learning begins in childhood, when you listened to and watched the way people interacted with each other and saw how different people were represented on the news and in different forums. You learned who was in charge and who is not in charge in different situations – whether it was what your head teacher looked like or what the prime minister looked like – from this you began to form your own understanding of the world, based on these representations. Implicit bias is more closely linked to socialisation than explicit teaching which is why it is trickier to address.

During the implicit bias panel discussion, Jules made an important point: The journey requires two parallel processes – one is looking at personal perceptions and the other is addressing structural and institutional racism, both are important and if both can be addressed in their different ways, this will then help us to start to think differently and more diversely over time.


Do you think we could all benefit from implicit bias training?

Good implicit bias training would help address some of those implicit issues around socialisation and would offer good education value, but there are many potential issues with implicit bias training. If it is too short, over-claims or is the only item relied on to engage people it can be problematic.

Implicit bias training must go hand in hand with other tools and therefore a multi-pronged approach is required to tackle race inequalities including incorporating awareness of these issues into everything that we do. The University’s Race Equality Strategy and Action Plan is another vital driver aimed at addressing structural and institutional racism.


Do you feel this year has been significant for holding conversations about race equality and inclusion?

When George Floyd was murdered in May this year, there were so many questions that were left unanswered and these became harder to push to one side, questions such as: How could this happen? Why did this happen? How does a culture exist in which this act can happen?

We must be compassionate but uncompromising about tackling the deep-seated issues of racial inequality and bias in all areas of our community.

In that way we need to be prepared to look at ourselves, and the notion of neutrality or ignorance of the facts needs to be challenged. It’s not really a tenable place to be and therefore institutions, individuals and professions alike all have to reflect on the importance of race equality and the work that needs to be done towards developing a culture where an act like this would not and could not happen again.

We must be compassionate but uncompromising about tackling the deep-seated issues of racial inequality and bias in all areas of our community.


What are the core things that you believe we should do to progress work in this area?

Representation is key. We must have a more diverse workforce and this must run through to senior leadership. This is an important issue and it will take time to tackle but if we are to work through these inequalities, our workforce must reflect this work and become more diverse over time. This is not straightforward but is something that the University has to get to grips with.

Decolonising the curriculum. Students have called for a more diverse curriculum across higher education; feedback from students tell us this is what they want in order to have a richer resource pool to learn from. The University has committed to this work and we need to ensure that the curriculum looks different in five years’ time.

Excellence is synonymous with diversity. In some ways, excellence is an exclusive term and I believe there is quite a ‘white’ notion of excellence here. Decolonising curriculum needs to be right at the heart of excellence and the University needs to shift its definition of what excellence means, so that diversity becomes synonymous with excellence in terms of an education. By definition not everyone can be excellent; however, work needs to be done to develop what an excellent institution does and what an excellent education is at the University. The University’s One University vision is a step in the right direction towards this work.


How can we overcome our biases to become better members of society?

My belief is that diverse groups make better decisions and therefore diverse organisations make better decisions. Valuing diversity and having representatives of everyone at the table, people from different groups, with different characteristics, who think in different ways.

When former US Senator John McCain died, Barack Obama told the story of how the senator would come over to the White House and how he and the then president would have long conversations. Despite being politically poles apart Obama said there were many things they disagreed on but he found it helpful to listen to one another’s views recognising there was something to learn from someone who thinks differently from him.

I believe having the capacity to have conversations with people who have different views, are from different backgrounds and have different cultural experiences or think differently politically is vital. In order to move forward, it is important that those with more power do more listening.