Focus on ‘unlearning’ an unconscious colour bias

By MYAN SUBRAYAN Time of article published Mar 1, 2018

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Opinion - Incidents of abuse due to gender, race and age bias constantly litter the news - indicating an unhealthy state of our nation.

Recently, a woman was kicked by a man in view of the media, adding to our current shocking record of abuse towards women.

The symptoms are daily in the news or on social media - but sadly, we don’t treat the cause: a flawed perception of reality.

Because, “We don’t see the world as it is, but as we are". Moreover, we are conditioned to see it due to our minds being shaped by our upbringing, culture and experiences.

These contribute to forming our world view, which is the lens through which we see, interpret the world and form our concept of reality. 

It’s our internal compass that in most cases we are unaware exists, as it’s hidden in our subconscious, directing our thoughts and forming our biases.

In psychological terms it’s known as an unconscious bias, which are the attitudes or stereotyping that affect our reasoning and judgement in an unconscious, involuntary manner - resulting in us behaving and having prejudiced feelings towards people based on their gender, age, race and physical appearance.

It’s usually developed over a lifetime, starting from toddlers and shaped by our upbringing, the media and advertising.

Unconscious biases are formed from learned associations, so the good news is that it can be "unlearned". 

However, unless it is pointed out, it becomes difficult to realise since it’s seated in our "blind-spot" (subconscious).

Mine were pointed out by my Kiwi mates when I emigrated to New Zealand in 2000.

I used to refer to people by their race group (something imbued in me from life in South Africa) and had a negative attitude towards Afrikaans and rugby, incorrectly seeing these as "signs of apartheid".

Today, back in South Africa, I am no stranger to rugby circles and speak often to Afrikaans audiences, also having written three books in Afrikaans.

At the beginning of last year, I was invited as a guest speaker at an Afrikaans-speaking high school - addressing (in Afrikaans) the teachers in their staff Bible study and pupils at a special sports assembly.

I was warmly hosted and did not experience any prejudices. 

However, this cordial reception is not what this school is currently known for, having stuck to their policy and not admitting 55 black, English-speaking students - even after the Department of Education requested they do.

Was the school acting on an unconscious bias because they felt compelled to protect a language/culture they perceived was under threat? Sadly, racial tensions have also escalated across university campuses recently. 

As South Africans, we have "inherited" much that may have been accepted as norms pre-1994, which still shape our biases - conscious and unconscious.

Today, these biases are the primary cause why gender, age and racial issues scar our beautiful Rainbow Nation.

Some cultures have passed down certain values where women are perceived as inferior to men - hence abuse towards them may seem to be accepted and go by unquestioned.

"Kids must be seen and not heard", is a typical saying that diminishes the respect and value for children. Could this be why teachers of another high school banded together to cover up the sexual abuse by one of their colleagues against pupils, even playing down and dismissing the claims of the pupils?

The pre-1994 government promoted eugenics, (through media, school curricula and the compulsory conscription), which taught against integration of races and portrayed the white race as superior to others. 

It also spread a culture of fear among whites that their existence was under threat from the "swart en rooi gevaar". 

"Non-white" communities were also not shielded from indoctrination, as hate and prejudice towards whites and other groups were supported - these conditions were ripe for the forming of biases and stereotyping to take root.

Seeing "all whites as racist", chanting "one bullet one Boer" and telling an Indian to go back to India is equally racist.

Herein lies the major cause for some of our current problems, as some are functioning on an "operating system" (OS) needing updating and a total (re) boot to eliminate biases being formed.

We can’t change what we don’t know exists and cannot see - our unconscious bias. 

A good example of an unconscious bias playing out was highlighted in a recent photograph of our Proteas - where it seemed as if they were arranged according to race around the trophy.

Knowing some of the players and management, I’m sure there was no malice intended. When I discussed the photo with them, we had a good chuckle.

The solution?

Empathy will go a long way to rectifying these biases, enabling a better understanding of each other irrespective of gender, age or race. 

Our nation’s past hindered previous generations from "racial mixing", but now we can become the generation that creates an environment and culture of inclusion, not division.

Therefore, the next time it’s your kid’s party, consider inviting their classmate from a different race or gender or even getting to know "those" neighbours better over a drink/meal.

Quit staring at or criticising mixed race couples, because it’s perfectly okay to be in a relationship with someone from another race. 

The truth is: if you disagree that people from different races can be together in romantic relationships then your thoughts are racist.

Black, white, coloured and Indian are not from different species - our racial diversity does not mean that mixed race relationships are unnatural.

To go forward as an integrated society and for positive change to begin, we must identify and rid ourselves of any negative biases that we carry from the past - especially to prevent transmission to our kids. 

Teaching our kids to respect all genders, races, age groups and modelling it with the appropriate behaviour and speech will start the ball rolling towards positive change in our nation.

Schools play a crucial role. 

Therefore instilling more robust programmes there for promoting gender, age and race harmony can counter prejudices that may be present in kids. 

We should also avoid generalising and making statements like, “Those people” or “These people”.

Rather than point the finger at government for lagging behind in transformation, let us examine our own personal space to seek out and be deliberate in ridding ourselves of any negative biases - especially the unconscious ones.

* Myan Subrayan is a writer, speaker and life coach to sports teams and businesses - specialising in developing team culture and unity. For more information log onto: or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


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