I try to be an accepting person – not necessarily accepting of others’ sins, but accepting of their selves. I endeavour to not offend or assume, but I don’t always succeed.
The thing is that we all have unconscious biases: reactions and responses to people and circumstances that we don’t think about. These biases are cultural and they are learned – there’s nothing innate to these reactions, as evidenced by the fact that different people have different sets of unconscious biases.
Unlearning the biases is very hard. The best that can usually be done in the first instance is to recognise them and to not make our first thought the only thought. If you are surprised by a black biker or a female lumberjack, examine your surprise for its origin and remind yourself that it’s unjustified.
But sometimes you say something which is triggered by an unconscious bias, something which is embarrassing and potentially offensive – if you had been thinking clearly about what you were saying you would not have been uttered those words. Scalzi calls this “showing your ass”, although since I am British I do not own a donkey. I do have an arse, though, which is occasionally on display.
This week it was pointed out to me that I was guilty of just such an unthinking utterance when I said something rude about the French.
The French and British have had an antagonistic relationship for a very long time. Wars have been fought, lands invaded, insults traded, and competing empires built. These days it’s basically two ex-imperial powers glaring at each other across a narrow strip of water. In that light, the fact that I’ve picked up some unconscious biases against the French is hardly surprising.
When the witlessness of my remark was pointed out to me, I of course apologised and began to to think about where that bias was rooted. I concluded that it was the imagery and confrontational language of the right wing press in Britain. I’m not now nor have I ever been a regular consumer of right wing news, but the current of xenophobia is strong all the same. So, I thought, it’s a good job I’m not regularly exposed to that stuff any more.
Then I listened to a Radio 4 show, The News Quiz, which often plays host to left-leaning comedians and I heard exactly the same anti-French sentiment. I realised that this unconscious bias had deeper roots than I thought, and indeed that I had an unconscious bias around my acceptance of the words of like-minded entertainers.
Anyway, it’s been a good learning experience, and if you notice me saying anything mindlessly offensive about a particular group* I’d be glad of the information that I’m stepping out of bounds.
Except if it’s about the Welsh. No apologies there**.
[*] except possibly Oregonians, Portlanders, Yorkshiremen, or Scots.
[**] which is of course a rather tasteless joke.