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#StopAsianHate Identity Racism

Where Does Racism Come From? A Guide to Unconscious Bias

Are you wondering why people are racist? The general consensus is that a racist isn’t born, a racist person is made from the world around them. Whether racist attitudes are taught and passed down from older family members or subtly programmed by the world around them.

This article explores the latter of the two and will take you on a journey to hopefully gaining a better understanding of yourself and your own thoughts, but also equip you with tools to help you critically challenge some of the harmful messaging that exists all around you.

A quick brain science lesson

In this article, we’ll be talking about ‘Unconscious Bias’, but before we get onto that, I want to give you a brief lesson on exactly how our brains work.

Think of your brain like a computer – it stores and processes information and helps you form almost-instantaneous judgements of the world around you. Unlike a computer, your brain receives thousands of messages a second and so it needs to quickly decide on what to do with all of those messages and often will form shortcuts in order to be as efficient as possible. Some of the messages come internally from your body, and others from the world around you – sights, smells, atmosphere, language, sounds, attraction, disgust; just to name a few.

How the brain creates stereotypes

Like a computer, our brain must decide on where to store information: temporary memory, short-term memory, long-term memory or trash. Generally, information that triggers an emotive response will be stored in short, or long-term memory. Information that isn’t important to us our survival will either be temporarily stored or thrown straight in the trash. This means that the brain is constantly making unconscious decisions on how to process information based on how important it considers it to be. 

You likely won’t remember the face of somebody you walked past yesterday, unless there was something distinctive about them. This is because it wouldn’t be a good use of the brains’ processing power to store that memory, so it throws it out. However, that time you almost got ran over, or had your first kiss, you’ll likely remember that forever because it’s been stored in your long-term memory.

So why am I telling you this? It’s because it’s valuable to have a general overview of how the brain processes and stores information and makes snap judgements on your behalf, in order to understand how judgements of other people are formed.

So… what is ‘unconscious bias’?

Unconscious bias is based on the principle that our brains receive constant streams of information about other people, and over time, shortcuts are made and the brain starts to construct a positive or negative bias towards individuals or groups of people, based on the messages it has received. 

As a child, I was bitten by a dog and very quickly developed a phobia of dogs. My brain had processed that trauma and taught me that dogs are dangerous and that I should avoid them in order to stay safe. Obviously now, as an adult, I know that most dogs are pretty chill and don’t generally go around biting people, but for a long time, I had developed an irrational fear and a negative unconscious bias around dogs.

What has this got to do with racism?

This same principle applies to people, and more importantly, groups of people. See, we’re constantly receiving messages about people that, over time, does create a bias. Messages come from so many different sources; whether it’s the news we read, social media, music videos, the stories we hear, advertisements or even the movies we watch. They all have a role to play in perpetuating stereotypes. This can be problematic because our brains short wire and in an effort to keep us safe and save a bit of processing power, they can lead us to make some pretty wild assumptions about groups of people, based on a perception that has been gradually built over a long period of time.

So what about ‘Asian Hate’?

This is the foundation for all forms of stereotypes. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, or any other form of prejudice. In the context of Asian hate, it is of course a derivative of racism, which we know is a huge issue plaguing the world around us. However, Asian hate also has the added complexities of a negative unconscious bias that has been developed in response to the pandemic.

The messaging we have received has often portrayed a negative view of Asia and many Asian communities and has built a belief system that this dangerous virus originated from China and therefore Chinese, and other Asian people are the source of a global pandemic and are ultimately a threat to safety. There has been some pretty harmful rhetoric published by the media, and even our world leaders on the origins and responsibility of the COVID-19 pandemic and inevitably, these perceptions and often explicitly racist opinions then filter down into the comment sections and posts on social media, further amplifying the racist signals and irrational fear of Asian communities. 

How do I train my unconscious bias and unlearn negative stereotypes?

We all have unconscious bias. Nobody is exempt and unfortunately, you can’t get rid of it, but you can train your unconscious bias in order to make it kinder and more open minded. Here are 10 ways to train your unconscious bias.

Want to learn more?

This article is part of our #StopAsianHate series in partnership with ASOS. Visit our hub for more info, tools, tips and ways to take a stand against Asian hate.

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