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Let kids be kids

The “unconscious bias” theory is detrimental in the fight against racism

Do you remember the kind of things you used to talk about when you were in your early teens? Most people’s memory doesn’t stretch back that far, but I kept a diary. It’s painful – and occasionally amusing – the inner life of a 13-year-old is about as deep as you might imagine. And though the scribbles refer to adult things, like love, feuds and the future, it’s quite clear they’re the musings of someone who has a lot of growing up to do.

Fast forward 15 years, and I’m not sure how my immature thoughts would be received today. The distinction between adult and child has been blurred in many different ways, from the phenomenon of disastrous ideas like child-led parenting to campaigns for a “youth vote”, rightly or wrongly childhood hasten on a new significance. But one of the more worrying shifts in attitudes towards our kids has been the idea that problems in the adult world can be fixed by meddling with education. The often lazy response to the alleged rise of sexual harassment claims during the #MeToo movement was to call for greater and more invasive sex and relationship education at school. Instead of the birds and the bees talk, children were to be coached in how and when consent should be appropriately and formally obtained. The panic around fake news that followed the election of Donald Trump, Brexit and other political shifts that caused upset among polite society found an outlet for its frustration in calls for greater “online literacy” in schools. Instead of encouraging kids to watch the news, classes were given nuance-allergic instructions on how to sort truth from lies (and why regulation of the press was a good thing).

Now, this obsession with education as a cure for adult society’s ills is being used to combat racism. Channel 4’s controversial documentary The School That Tried To End Racism uses a class of year 7’s at Glenthorne High School in south London, putting them through social experiments to attempt to train them out of their supposed racism. Glenthorne is not a racist school, nor does it have a problem with integration. In fact, the programme begins by stating that “today, most of us know that racism is wrong”; kids are filmed talking about how they don’t see any worth in valuing someone by the colour of their skin. Instead, the programme claims it is attempting to reveal the hidden racism at the heart of each child in this experiment, asking: “is it possible we could all be racist without knowing it?” Dr Nicola Rollock, one of the experts used in the programme along with Professor Rhiannon Turner, explains that the problem is that in Britain “we pretend that we don’t see race and that racial differences don’t matter”. For Rollock, “that approach isn’t working” and so if we fail to tackle the unconscious bias in children, “they could potentially grow up and demonstrate these biases in their everyday life and in their areas of employment”.

There’s nothing a white liberal likes more than being congratulated for recognising the sins of their fathers

It’s hard not to feel uncomfortable while watching the show, even upset – but it seems like that is the point. Rather than this being a beneficial move for the children involved (Glenthorne promises to roll out these experiments across the curriculum if they prove successful) it’s more about making the adults watching at home squirm. “See”, it says, “we told you you could still be racist, even if you say you’re not”. It’s this fetishisation of white self hatred that has propelled figures like Robin DiAngelo and the theories around white fragility to fame. There’s nothing a white liberal likes more than being congratulated for recognising the sins of their fathers – even if that means admitting you’re racist when you don’t think you are. The problem is, unconscious bias is a highly questionable theory. While we all understand that there are things we might not know or understand about ourselves on a conscious level (like how much sugar we like in our tea) the idea that we’re subconsciously conditioned to be prejudiced is not a proven science.

At the beginning of the programme the children – remember, year 7’s are between 11- 12-years-old – are split into ethnic groups and asked to complete an online test matching positive and negative words or feelings to pictures of black or white faces. This Implicit Association Tests (IAT) was popularised following the launch of Project Implicit, an online test created by a group of academics in the US to see whether or not unconscious bias could be traced – think word association but with a racialist twist. Over 20 years on from its conception, IATs are still used but are much maligned. Writing for The Cut, journalist Jesse Singal argues: “IAT has come to so thoroughly dominate the social-psychological conversation about race it may be tilting the scales in favour of certain explanations at the expense of others, not because they are better or more empirically defensible, but simply because they more neatly fit a hot and frequently hyped paradigm”. For example, IATs are unable to show the correlation between whatever bias they might pick up through an online test and the real-world actions Rollock claims her students will display without intervention. In short, fans of IATs have had 20 years to prove they are a credible way of determining and combatting racism and have failed to provide adequate data. Why then are we watching a show that uses unreliable theories about psychology to prove that kids who say they aren’t racist actually are?

The School That Tried To End Racism and its fans who believe in unconscious bias don’t want kids to think about the consequences of their words (a useful lesson for anyone) but instead want them to accept a new reality about themselves. What’s denied by white-privilege-obsessed critical race theorists is the idea of agency – that no matter what prejudiced environment we might come from, or what we look like, we can as human beings make decisions about what we believe in. This is most crucial for the black students involved in the programme, as most begin the show feeling indifferent to difference. Farrah, a charmingly confident girl, grimaces when asked how she descries her skin colour saying “I don’t really think about that to be honest, even though I look different to white people or black people I don’t really think about it as a way of being different”. It seems incredibly regressive to think that the entire point of the exercise is to get Farrah to think differently about her classmates based on the colour of their skin. While it’s true that black kids are more likely to suffer racist abuse than white kids – and that’s wrong – what’s almost worst is training them to meet all interactions with their peers with an expectation of abuse. In an early episode, the students are split up by race, and Rollock and Turner who are watching via video link remark on how the group of black students are having a huge amount of fun, while the group of white kids are acting as if they’re at a funeral. Henry, a lovely little lad with a shock of ginger hair (is this my unconscious bias showing for a fellow red head?) points out that he can hear the other group having fun, and says he doesn’t know whether that’s because “we’re not there”. The idea is to get the white kids to feel bad for oppressing their black friends, and to get the black kids to realise that the source of many of their ill feelings is the colour of their skin.

Proponents of unconscious bias, or the concept of white privilege or micro-aggressions claim that being “colourblind” – i.e., saying you don’t care about skin colour – is oppressive in itself as it denies or “erases” the experience of black people. The show goes out of its way to reveal how the white pupils find it hard to describe their racial identity, as they’ve never had to think about it too much, while their black friends might have experienced racial prejudice. However much some groups on social media might bleat about racism against whites, it’s true that this is a problem that really only goes one way. Racist prejudice is still prevalent in society, but it’s nothing like what it was for some of these kids’ parents. That’s racist whataboutery – some might argue – but it’s an important point. All of these kids are aware of the fact that there is right and wrong when it comes to a discussion about race. Any good teacher would take that as a starting point to have a serious discussion about where prejudice lies and what we can do about it in an educational setting.

The children involved in Channel 4’s rather unethical and salacious social experiment are on their way to becoming fully-formed adults, but they’ve got a way to go. And inhibiting their ability to speak freely to each other – for fear of the unconscious things one might evoke – not only leads down a dangerous path of self censorship, but also risks stunting their ability to develop into healthy individuals. Though looking at a much younger cohort, the Soviet-era psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s work on the linkage between childhood development, socialisation and language is worth remembering here. In an essay collected in Mind and Society, published in 1978, Vygotsky explains how a child’s inner thoughts are made external in order to help them achieve goals – through speech. “Speech not only facilitates the child’s effective manipulation of objects, but also controls the child’s own behaviour”, he writes, “thus, with the help of speech children, unlike apes, acquire the capacity to be both the subjects and objects of their own behaviour”. Through the use of social experiments observed by his collaborator R.E. Levina, Vygotsky argued that without being able to vocalise one’s thoughts, children were unable to develop. And even better, without vocalising them in a social situation – conversing freely with others – this inner speech never developed into an ability to differentiate the lives of the inner and outer mind. Perhaps it would be deemed typical by some to refer to a dead white guy to criticise modern critical race theory of unconscious bias, but it’s clear how Vygotsky’s ideas are relevant when it comes to attempts to train children to treat their subconscious as a boiling hub of prejudice.

It’s hard to see how unconscious bias training does anything but sow division between children as young as this

At the end of The School That Tried To End Racism, a shy white girl called Beth is asked whether she feels differently about the issue of race – she says she initially felt “intimidated” but is now “open and ready to share”. Really? Can this be true of a political idea that teaches people to not say what they think, but instead second-guess their ideas for fear of condemnation as racist? It’s hard to see how unconscious bias training does anything but sow division between children as young as this. As adults, we’re able to understand that political ideas aren’t gospel or true – that this is merely a theory of how to understand race relationships. I’m not so sure 11-year-olds have the capacity to be as open-minded about the experiment. Mahkai, who at one point in the programme gave an upsetting account of how futile he felt the fight against racism was, having experienced racism as a young black boy, ended the show by telling the class that we’ve had “11 or 12 years of white unconscious bias … it just shows how much people should be doing this”. Kids often bounce back, but it’s likely that this experiment will make it difficult for these friends to stay friends without the constant background noise of unconscious bias. It’s as if Rollock and Turner want the pupils to imagine that they are always watching, secretly, via videolink, just this time in their heads.

Racist prejudice does still exist – but instead of training kids how to click the right thing on an IAT to prove their “awareness” about privilege or oppression, why not actually teach them something about racism? Get secondary-school-age kids to watch In The Heat Of The Night, do a book club on Invisible Man, have a morning discussion about the news and politics. There are many inventive ways to get kids thinking about and talking about race without making them artificially feel bad about themselves – either as oppressed or oppressors. Racism is a serious issue, in order to be “active” against it, as the teachers at Glenthorpe insist their children should be, they should be emphasising the need to stop fetishising what’s going on in people’s unconscious lives and instead tackle issues in the real world. Many of the children at British schools today have family members who have been affected by the Windrush scandal – a lesson or two on the real racism at the heart of British government in 2020 would do more to educate these kids than a curriculum built around unconscious bias. Prejudice – however implicit – might still exist, but as Kenan Malik put it in his Observer column, “it was not, however, unconscious bias that made a police officer place his knee on George Floyd’s neck”. The School That Tried To End Racism aims to make adults feel ashamed of the ways in which our racist society has allowed innocent children to develop unconscious prejudice. Instead, I think it should make us feel ashamed that such a divisive and regressive idea like unconscious bias has gone unchallenged for so long.

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