World Trust

Explaining Unconscious Bias: You've Got To Be Carefully Taught

Posted by Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong on August 26, 2014

south pacific film

Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific was just as popular a hit as all of their musicals, several of which have been turned into films. But as this NPR piece argues, the great musical theater duo were just as successful in advocating against systemic inequity as they were at turning out great song and dance routines. Here at World Trust, we were struck by what the song "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught" exposes about unconscious bias.

How Does Bias Occur?
Implicit, or unconscious, bias can be a tough thing to pinpoint or understand in ourselves, or explain to others when they display it. These are attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that affect us on a level that is by definition outside our conscious control. Maybe you are progressive, open-minded, and as tolerant as they come - but when a young man of color in sagging pants walks toward you on the sidewalk, you clutch your purse a little tighter until he's passed you.

What's that about? And why doesn't your conscious brain match up with your unconscious behaviors? It has to do with the way the brain is wired. We'll let Rodgers and Hammerstein explain.

You've Got To Be Carefully Taught
You've got to be taught

To hate and fear, you've got to be taught from year to year
It's got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught
To be afraid of people
Whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade
You've got to be carefully taught.

This speaks directly to the way in which our brains lay down the structures that create bias. Above all, the brain is an agile and accomplished categorizer. This has been a useful skill to have since the beginnings of humanity: the ability to recognize an edible berry, or react to a snake on the path faster than the conscious mind could see it and change course, was a matter of life and death.

And so societal perceptions, the beliefs of older family members, community ideas about certain types of people, media images: all of these things are filtering into our minds from a very young age. Once there, they lay down mental pathways that are strengthened each time they are activated, which can be frequent. After a lifetime of seeing African-American youths portrayed as violent thugs, unconscious bias is quite practiced at making these judgments.

It should be noted that people of color are not immune to this phenomenon, except where their own experience overrides it: immersed in the same larger cultural milieu, the person of color's implicit biases may mirror those of a white person in their society.

Using Film And Dialogue To Uproot Unconscious Bias
But it's not all doom and gloom. If you're wondering how to avoid being trapped by the limiting beliefs of an earlier time, look no further than the previous paragraph. Personal experience has the capacity to override these beliefs. In order to help engage others in the work of implicit bias training or other diversity activities, consider film and dialogue to assist you in your efforts.

Powerful stories paired with meaningful dialogue can create a shift in understanding that opens participants to change. Particularly when it comes to race, there are so few opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue that it can be a truly transformative experience.

This makes film, and especially film with many varied stories and points of entry, the ideal medium to help override unconscious bias and move into a more nuanced way of viewing the world that's alive to far greater possibilities. Embedding their message of tolerance and love into musicals and calling attention to unconscious bias, then, was just another thing that Rodgers and Hammerstein were doing right - with a song.

World Trust offers films and other cultural diversity training materials that harness the power of multimedia education for transformative learning. For more information about our products, please click here

Topics: System of Inequity