Honesty and the work of change: how unconscious bias is challenged in What Do You See?

by Alliyah Dawud

Unconscious bias… the wonderful beliefs we have that are not always accurate or correct. The beliefs we have based on many things. From opinions of others around us, to experiences, to what we absorb from our surrounding environment.

We all secretly believe that we are exempt from this narrative of holding unconscious bias that leads us towards negative bias. After all it’s 2023 and we understand prejudice more than those before us. We acknowledge that we are all human and, as part of the same kind (humankind), we are all equal and thus deserve the same love, care and respect. And because this bias is often packaged as caring and protecting others it’s widely accepted by others. Unlike, for example, having a view that is clearly racist.

Unconscious biases surround us and fill us. Without us even registering what our unconscious is communicating to us, it is impacting the way we interact with all those around us. From the way we look at colleagues, to the way we interact with friends and even family. The influence starts with our brains processing millions of pieces of information, which is how we form our beliefs and opinions. Of course we can blame our brain (after all it’s the most powerful tool we have at our disposal), however our biases can lead us down a road where we become unaware of our unjust judgments and reinforcements of stereotypes. Which, let’s face it, is causing us more harm than good.


A challenge in common

But are we really unaware of unconscious bias? When we think bias, we are likely to think of colour. After all, it’s the most visible and has over recent years been thrust to the forefront of politics and basic human rights, as the colour of your skin determines if you are more likely to be stopped by police and then your life is in the hands of those that are meant to protect you. But take a look around you. Go on. Take a long hard look. I have a fact for you. The actual biases we come across daily run into double figures and include ageism, name bias, gender bias, beauty bias, affinity bias (also called similarity bias), perception bias and authority bias. These biases prey on our lack of knowledge and understanding. For many, what makes us different is a starting point for biases to be created.

In 2022 I got to watch the magnificently produced, written and delivered production What Do You See? by the PappyShow. The show was a reflective piece by artists from London and Stoke-on-Trent. Artists from different paths in life, united by a raw passion to tell us their stories, in response to the question: what do you see when you look at me? As an artist I was lucky enough to see the pre-production, with ideas coming together to create a beautiful harmony from a subject that is uncomfortable for many to face head on. Through each artist’s contribution we were taken on a diverse journey of what unconscious bias really is in the modern world.


Accessibility makes inclusion

Straight away, just by looking, it’s easy to see how these artists are all different and yet have something in common: the challenges they face with unconscious bias. It’s like a trap: look at West Midlands artist Neffi and here is a woman of colour using a wheelchair who of course must be South Asian. And if she’s in a wheelchair she can’t be a biological mother because, well, she doesn’t look like she could have babies. Yet the reality is Neffi is an Egyptian queen with a family, who desires to highlight that without accessibility for all, inclusion cannot take place. And her talent with movement and words draws our attention to the fact that as a society we look at being inclusive by ticking boxes, when those like Neffi would rather you looked deeper, to who people are within their fierce souls. She is a force to be reckoned with on stage and beyond. 

Then there is Mohammed Mansaray. A young black artist coming to us via south London with roots in Sierra Leone. What do you see when you look at Mohammed? Do you simply see his skin tone and take a random guess at his ethnic roots? Or when you hear his name do you assume more things about Mohammed, things the media drip feeds us everyday about black men of London?

Then there is Nadiya. When you look and hear this well-spoken young woman, what do you see? Do you see a proud woman of mixed Moroccan and English heritage? When you look at Stoke-on-Trent born and raised artist Robbie, what do you see? A well-spoken white man carving his career path because he’s young? Or do you see his struggles deep underneath his skin? Of course we do not. What most see is a man that must come from a privileged, middle-class upbringing for him to be working in the arts, because the arts are not for the working-class folk in England. 


United in humanity

How much unconscious bias can we home within ourselves at one time? How much unconscious bias do we harbour as a community? And when are we honest about this? When we catch ourselves delving into an unconscious bias thought that is smashed by the reality that we are not always right about others? 

When we start to peel away the multiple layers that are these artists, we discover so many amazing facts about them. Facts that unconsciously we would never entertain. From the opening song, which could easily be charting with its fresh sound that echoed touches of modern-day London rap, this was a supportive, lively and upbeat brave space for all those involved to be who they really are with no worries of judgement. The artists’ arms swayed in the space, making patterns followed by laughter in unison. These artists were coming together to embrace what makes them different yet unites them on a different level. All these artists had different backgrounds. Different stories to tell. Different biases to discuss. What united them? Humanity. Their creativity was producing something that looked the same on a stage but in reality their experiences are all different. 

Our eyes work in the same way. But our perceptions are different.

When I got to listen to these awesome artists tell their stories it became apparent that where one unconscious bias resides another one is not too far behind. The artists were able to present an unsavoury subject in a way you could watch again and again and learn something new. Each artist unwrapped a mini production about real-life biases. Perhaps this would be the only time they are given a platform to do this. Their movements, their words, the energy installed into this made each and every movement magical to the eye. The production makes you reflect and confront unconscious demons. And if you have ever experienced unconscious bias you question why is something so wrong, so widely accepted in society?


The Britishness checklist

For me as a South Asian Muslim woman who observes the hijab, the production highlights my own battles with my identity and attempts to prove that I am indeed British. Even though I enjoy complaining about the weather, can watch Only Fools and Horses on repeat and was born in the West Midlands to a family with roots in the UK since 1957, for some that is simply not enough. That doesn’t quite cut the Britishness checklist. The fact many in my family have the jobs that those entering the UK in the 1950s would never have dreamt they could have doesn’t give us the seal of British approval. We’re still outsiders. People still ask the question ‘but where are you FROM from? You know, back home?’ This question is always met with mixed feelings. A part of me wants to explain exactly where my ancestors came from but I fight the urge as I wonder which bit of me they see is simply never going to be British enough for their unconscious bias, and whether this will impact my children. 

Unconscious bias towards me dictates that I am Asian, I do not belong here because I don’t look like an Anglo-Saxon. My name is clearly foreign. English cannot be my language and of course I am not educated because people like me don’t access education: we’re busy getting married at 18 and bringing over partners from the Motherland. And don’t get the biased started on my choice to wear a hijab. Of course I must be being forced to wear one by a man? Because that’s what we hear from the media. That’s the narrative we are exposed to. And even though in some cases that is true, it’s not the case for everyone. 


Change comes with action

Admitting that we hold unconscious bias within us takes guts. Admitting you fall face first for what others tell you, what you hear in the news or what you read on social media is courageous. Because realistically we have all been exposed to unconscious bias. And because we never challenge ourselves we continue this cycle. Why do we not talk about unconscious biases as openly as we talk about the weather?

When you see a young black man walking along a corridor in a large corporation what do you see? A delivery man? Or the man delivering the plan for this corporation? When you see an Arabian man what do you genuinely see? A man that cannot adjust to Western ways because these men are taught only how to control women because that’s what their religion and culture dictates? Or do you see a man that is married to a woman he sees and treats as an equal and is proud of his Arabian identity and heritage? When you see a group of young white boys near an estate being a bit loud, do you see a group of friends making their way home after school or do you see a group of yobs out to cause problems?

Unconscious bias is one of the oldest skeletons in the closet of mankind. Yet with a generation that is able to express themselves more openly than those before, change is coming. As a child I remember being at school and those around me accepting unconscious bias and not challenging it. Now I see my own daughter questioning and challenging unconscious bias with confidence to make a change. A positive change. Because change only comes with action. We can all sit around and claim that we are doing our bit. Are we really? Removing yourself from a narrative because it doesn’t apply to you is not actually helping. Being sympathetic isn’t going to undo years of accepted unspoken biases. No. It’s enabling those that see their opinions as correct to keep pushing that belief out to the wider world.


The roots of bias

But isn’t having an opinion a basic right of freedom? An opinion based on inaccurate facts and figures that are toxic and creating something that is cementing toxicity, prejudice and reinforcing stereotyping isn’t doing anything positive for you. Or anyone else around you. In fact you are anchoring yourself inside a system that breeds similar thoughts and negativity. And once you start with a negative thought pattern, your brain takes over super quickly, because we face over 65,000 negative thoughts a day, making it easier for our brains to accept that and process it. And the more negativity you absorb the more it will impact you, your thoughts and your actions.

Ask yourself: where does the root of the unconscious bias really stem from? Is it an experience that happened? Is it something someone said to you? Is it the opinion of a loved one? Or is it something you read on social media (which, let’s be honest, is one of the most unreliable, overused sources for information ever known to mankind)?

Growing up I heard various biases towards my ethnicity. We were only capable of being taxi drivers and takeaway owners. They (migrant Pakistanis) only came to the UK for money. All Pakistani men were abusive. They used white girls because Pakistani women were uneducated and didn’t know how to be good, adjusted wives. And as I write this, as a nearly 40 year old, I still hear these biases being thrown around as if they are factual. I class myself as British Muslim of South Asian descent (79% to be exact). I look around me today and see British Pakistanis in many different jobs: from doctors, surgeons, teachers, to Prime Minister, Lord Mayors, engineers. Yet the unconscious bias still exists because we allow it to.

Instead of having conversations and understanding someone that looks different to us and comes from a place not familiar to us we judge. Humans love a good judge. From judging that young woman wearing a skirt they see as too short to that young man with his nose piercing. We judge. Just look at our Saturday night entertainment. Britain’s Got Talent is a brand built on a panel of judges sitting there deciding who is good enough to grace our television screens. The same applies to Dancing on Ice, Strictly Come Dancing and more. And while these judges sit there and judge, millions up and down the country sit at home shouting their opinions at the television telling Simon Cowell how he got it wrong (yet again).


Tick boxes out, open conversations in

Can we stop unconscious bias? Is there a magical pill we can take and reset ourselves to be open to actually getting to know someone and not judging them based on what we see on the outside? What about all these tick boxes on forms? Surely they help us break down barriers and unconscious bias? Do they? Do they really? It’s not a secret that a lot of companies actively recruit people that tick those boxes to make their companies look diversified and open to all. But if that was really the case would they need to invest so much in making themselves look that way? Scratching the surface and saying we know what unconscious bias is, and we are breaking it down via Equality and Diversity policies, may look awesome on paper. But policies only work if those behind them believe in the words and the actions. Having a shiny policy on your website isn’t really productive until you take the challenge and ask those uneasy questions. 

Decades of accepted unconscious bias are bubbling under the surface for many. How do you tackle it? With honesty. Rather than us living in denial and saying we know exactly what unconscious bias is and how we are removing it, we need to have open conversations with everyone. We must step off the conveyor belt we have created in society that we can fix things by bringing in policies when what we need to do is create a chain of change. We must create awareness of what unconscious bias really looks like in our daily lives. We then challenge it. And when we challenge it we encourage and embrace change. 

And where do we start this? By us all asking: What do you see, when you look at me?