Recently I managed to shock myself in a way which unsettled me.
A screenshot of an online video discussion flashed up on Facebook and I looked to see who the participants were, as the subject being talked about was of interest to me.
One of those taking part was someone whose name and writing I have been familiar with for years – and much admired. But I had never seen a photo of them before so had no idea what they looked like in person.
As I put a face to this long-known name I had an instinctive reaction which afterwards left me rather disquieted. That fleeting, instantaneous, immediate thought was this: ‘But that can’t be so-and-so…’ Why? Because they were of a different ethnic background from that which I had ever imagined.
I had made the assumption that this particular individual whose insights I much appreciated was white – and they were not. Now, you may or may not regard this as instinctively racist. But either way I do think it is an example of what is called ‘unconscious bias’. I was quite shocked by my own assumptions in this situation.
Oxford academic Kate Kirkpatrick explains it like this: ‘Explicitly, few of us would own up to sexism or racism, or to thinking that the rich are more worthy human beings than the poor; nevertheless, when tested on the implicit level, we do.’
She cites two interesting examples. One is of a frequent air passenger, a high-flying (in every sense) woman in an important role, who admitted that when she hears the voice of the pilot and it is female, her first instinctive reaction is: ‘Gosh, I hope she can fly the plane’. She then consciously says to herself: ‘Don’t be ridiculous. Of course she can. She’s had the training; she’s just as good as anyone else.’ But that is not her unconscious initial reaction.
The second example is from 1999, when 238 male and female members of the American Psychological Association (APA) were sent a single CV to evaluate. Half the psychologists got one with a male name, while the other half got one with a female name. Apart from that, the CV itself was identical. So did both CVs receive an equal rating? The answer is no: in the survey, both men and women in the APA rated the one with the male name higher. Kate Kirkpatrick concludes: ‘If we, like the majority of humans, have discrepancies between our conscious and unconscious commitments, these may have damaging consequences for other members of Christ’s body, and these need to be redressed.’
But how do we find out whether or not we have implicit bias, and if so, how much? Well, one thing you can do is take part in ‘Project Implicit’ which is a research scheme to test just this very thing through an interactive questionnaire which is quite fun to take. You can find it online here: https://implicit. harvard.edu/implicit/ It’s a survey which is thought-provoking and enjoyable, though not necessarily easy!
Why is all this important? Because as Christians we are called to be free from favouritism. The New Testament has some pretty strong warnings on this subject: ‘My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favouritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you”, but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet”, have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?’
Of course, we would never do that – would we? But I heard of one major evangelical conference where a potential steward was barred from stewarding because he was wearing a tracksuit rather than a jacket… And I recall one church where most people took care to avoid the very smelly elderly gent who sat at the back on the right. You might think you are not biased. Think again.
David Baker is also Rector of East Dean Church