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20 Mar 2024

You’re biased, but are you a bigot?

Written by Jo Gower

You have biases, and so do I. We all do, it’s part of being human – a clever way for our brains to protect us, stick to the familiar things we know are safe, and reduce the amount of processing required by making snap judgements. Bias is a natural, normal response to consistent social conditioning, but when we talk about bias, we often get defensive. We see it as a personal attack, insult, or unfair malignment against our character. We equate bias with bigotry, which is a word most can agree has negative connotations. So, what is the difference?


A biased person is someone with an “inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group”. A bigot, on the other hand, is a person who is “obstinately or intolerantly devoted to [their] own opinions and prejudices”. The difference between these two dictionary definitions is clear: it’s the inflexibility, the unwillingness to learn or change your mind, that defines bigotry.

First thought, second thought

When a situation occurs, our first thoughts and feelings are not reliable. They’re based on gut instinct, they’re quick and ill-considered, and they often display our biases (whether conscious or unconscious). You may see someone in the office and think to yourself “that outfit is not flattering or professional on someone their size”. This fatphobia is a bias – a bias that assumes that looking slim is everyone’s goal because it is better than looking or being fat, and a bias that links appearance to the entirely socially constructed notion of professionalism. But what is your second thought? It’s often said that our first thoughts are reflections of the world we live in, of our social conditioning, whereas our second thoughts are indicators of who we are as people. Are we doubling down on our biased judgements, opening us up to embodying the definition of bigotry, or are we challenging ourselves and reframing our instinctive positions?

Second thought, first action
Perhaps even more indicative of who we are as people is what we do with our thoughts - we can acknowledge our biases and still act as allies, still fight for equity and the liberation of others who experience more (or different) barriers than we do. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to challenge our first thoughts (though we have to do that, too). We must go beyond internal reflection and confront the very social structures which enable and reinforce inequality – we must take action. This might look like contacting your HR department to ask for your discrimination and harassment policies to be updated to target the inequalities we have in society, including those not protected by law such as fatphobia, appearance, classism, and carer status. It might look like signing petitions or contacting your MP on these issues, or it might look like having a frank and open conversation with a colleague about the comments they make when they think nobody cares enough to challenge them.


Taking action to reduce bias and bigotry

There are so many ways to combat bias, but all begin with an openness to learning and questioning ourselves.

  • Name the problem. Acknowledge that bias exists within all of us, and that it is something we must combat to enable us to act in a fair way. If someone is demonstrating their bias, you can ask “what do you mean by that?” or, “can you explain that comment to me?” This is often an effective way to challenge others to examine their own thoughts and get to the root of why an action or comment is unacceptable. Providing evidence to counter their assumptions can also be useful, and requires you to be informed on the issues at hand
  • Educate yourself on social issues, learning from people who know them best – those affected by them. Share that knowledge with those around you, including coworkers
  • Learn about your biases. There are free tools online to examine your biases, including the Harvard Implicit Associations Tests. They aren’t perfect, but do offer valuable insights into the ways our brains work
  • Be open to changing your mind, including changing the way we have been taught to think about social issues
  • Realise that you don’t always know best, and that there is never only one way of thinking about or solving a problem
  • Build cultures where positive challenge is embraced, and diversity of thought is enabled to flourish – the more diverse voices we have on a topic, the greater the chances of coming to an unbiased conclusion
  • Take care of yourself. Hunger, tiredness, stress, boredom, pain, anger – all increase our tendency to make those snap judgements and act in a biased way
  • Challenge social conditioning by diversifying the messages your brain is receiving, including on social media and in the news
  • Listen to marginalised people and accept their experiences as their truth
  • Acknowledge that you can’t change everyone’s mind – some people are not willing to do the work to learn and interrogate their own social conditioning. However, you can push to implement policies and practices which protect against or mitigate the impacts of bigotry, providing a safety net for those likely to be the target of it


Written by Jo Gower

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