We often think of bias as a problem that other people have. It’s harder to find someone willing to admit to it in themselves. That was what struck me reading American journalist Jessica Nordell’s thoughtful book, The End of Bias, which I picked up at the same time as being absorbed in the new reality TV series My Unorthodox Life. The show follows Julia Haart, a New Yorker who in her 40s left an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community to transform herself into a global fashion magnate. Her new life is remarkable, but her reflections on her old one are just as fascinating. Haart has spent decades asking herself why her world is the way it is, and the role she plays in making it that way. Today, she has no qualms about striding into her former Orthodox neighbourhood in shorts and a low-cut top, whatever people may think. It’s not as easy for others to make that leap, though.
In one scene, Haart’s adult daughter, who has previously only worn skirts, in keeping with Haredi custom, reveals that her husband is nervous about her decision to try jeans for the first time. Haart’s response is that it isn’t a man’s business to decide what any woman wears. But, as her daughter patiently explains, if she is going to move away from some of the values with which she was raised, she would rather do it with the support of the man she loves – even if that means it takes a little longer.
Nordell’s book helps to put this unusual mother-daughter moment into context. As the author explains, overcoming internalised bias isn’t a matter of flipping a mental switch; it is a lifelong process of constantly questioning our deeply held beliefs. It can be painful, even when undertaken willingly. Many of us are familiar with the fact of gender and ethnic pay gaps, with structural and systemic discrimination, with glass ceilings and sticky floors, and how groups of people are disadvantaged by the quiet, subtle biases we may be unaware we have. To be raised in a society is to absorb its particular prejudices. None of us is immune.
There have been countless books exploring the multifarious ways in which prejudice manifests itself. Diversity training has become big business. But overcoming bias is still fiendishly tough. “Unconscious” or “implicit” bias courses may be useful, but they don’t explain where biases come from, nor do they necessarily strip them away. Indeed, in some ways, they make problems seem impossibly large. If everyone is biased, is there really any hope of fixing things? Drawing on the work of leading psychologists, including Stanford’s Jennifer Eberhardt, author of the excellent 2019 book Biased, Nordell asks what a better approach might look like.
If bias training isn’t the answer, what is? There are simple measures that, while not exactly revelatory, do work. One tech company removed personal identifiers from job applications. When someone’s gender or race are unknown, it’s harder to discriminate against them.
Ultimately, though, the hope is that it might be possible to change how people think and feel, so hacks like that are not needed. Bias is a habit, Nordell explains, and it’s possible to train yourself out of it by probing your beliefs and actions more deeply. The author, for instance, notes that she felt “self-satisfied” as a student because she was one of the few women in her advanced maths and science classes. Only later did she realise that beneath this self-satisfaction lay the fact that “I [harboured] unexamined harmful beliefs about women’s worthiness, and my own.”
This kind of mental transformation is easier to do when you’re not stressed, she adds. Mindfulness helps. Starting young is also useful. Nordell describes a Swedish preschool that changed the way it taught after realising teachers treated girls and boys differently, which in turn affected how children behaved towards each other. They “let the boys cry if they wanted to cry and comforted them with the same tenderness they displayed towards the girls,” she writes. Teachers flipped the gender of characters in stories, and began using the gender-neutral Swedish pronoun, hen. As a result, children began to stereotype others less.
“Who might we become without our illusions and denials?” asks Nordell. Her answer takes the form of a rousing statement: “We might all become free.” But what is missing here, as in so many books on bias, is the uncomfortable acknowledgment that many of those with bias don’t experience it unconsciously at all. The Swedish school, for instance, received hate mail as a result of its actions. Overt prejudice powers populist and nationalist movements around the world. Religious and sexual minorities, and immigrants, are particular targets. Well-coordinated disinformation campaigns on social media have mobilised people’s biases for political ends. The current salient fact about bias is not that we experience it against our will, but that so many appear to choose it.
The reasons for this are complex. It’s not always hatred that drives people to maintain these beliefs. Perhaps as often, it’s that questioning our biases means questioning other aspects of our identities and cultures in a way that makes us insecure. Haart’s daughter waited so long before wearing jeans in public not because she accepted the logic that it was shameful, but because the community she valued in other ways had certain expectations of how she should dress. This mattered to her. She wasn’t ready to reject it all.
If we’re honest, how many of us can look at our own lives and not feel similar conflicts? Some feminists accept that changing a woman’s surname after marriage is a concession to patriarchy, yet choose to do it anyway. Some Britons are reluctant to acknowledge the brutality of empire, not because they support colonialism, but because of what this might do to their sense of pride. We are all products of our cultures. We don’t float free. The beliefs, values and traditions we are raised with are what moor us in the world. And they are all woven through with the biases of the past.
Nordell has had to confront her own demons, including the fact that there were probably slave owners among her ancestors on her mother’s side. That moral injury and the failure to confront it, she writes, is something that has affected her family over generations. “Old, inherited reflexes and mythologies surfaced repeatedly,” she says. Challenging these feelings, she realises, will take honesty, self-scrutiny, education and, above all, time.