Dot Wordsworth

Unconscious bias

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Starbucks closed its 8,000 American coffee shops for half a day to give staff unconscious bias training. Training is to unconscious bias what Roundup is to Japanese knotweed.

‘I have to say when you get to a certain stage it is not unconscious any more,’ commented Maria Miller on a decision to appoint the only man on a five-person shortlist for a place on the Bank of England monetary policy committee. Mrs Miller herself chairs the Commons Women and Equalities committee, which has two men among its 11 members, but that’s fine. She is most widely celebrated for her 32-second apology to the House in 2014 in which she said the Committee of Standards ‘recommended that I apologise to the House for my attitude to the Commissioner’s inquiries, and I, of course, unreservedly apologise’. It was something to do with expenses. Her constituents showed no bias against her, returning her with a 9,466 majority.

Anyway, unconscious bias seems to be what Sir William Macpherson called, in his 1999 report into the Stephen Lawrence affair, ‘unwitting prejudice’. His catch-all term was institutional racism, to be ‘detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping’. Institutional racism could be exerted by cab drivers inducting their children into the trade.

It would be nice to think that bias derived from the Latin bifacem, ‘two-faced’, as the great 7th-century encyclopaedist Isidore of Seville said, but modern etymologists reject this. In any case, our word is a metaphor from the game of bowls. The OED is excited to explain that bowls follow a curved, biased course, not due to one-sided weighting, but due to their shape: ‘that of a sphere slightly flattened on one side and protuberant on the other, as if composed of the halves of an oblate and a prolate spheroid’. As if.

I had thought Freud invented the unconscious, but the identity of the conscious and unconscious mind was being discussed in psychological journals in the 1850s. As for me, the only bias of which I am conscious is that on which my dress material is cut.