This essay, on the degeneration of anti-racism into ‘unconscious bias’ training, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on Hagia Sophia.) It was published on 12 July 2020, under the headline ‘Enough of the psychobabble. Racism is not something to fix with therapy’.

Are you racist? And, if so, how would I know? I used to think that a good gauge may be whether you call me a ‘Paki’, or assault me because of my skin colour, or deny me a job after seeing my name. But, no, these are just overt expressions of racism. Even if you show no hostility, or seek to discriminate, you’re probably still racist. You just don’t know it. Especially if you’re white. And if you protest about being labelled a racist, you are merely revealing what the US academic and diversity trainer Robin DiAngelo describes in the title of her bestselling book as your ‘white fragility’.

You either accept your racism, or reveal your racism by not accepting it. Indeed, as DiAngelo explains, it’s ‘progressives’ confronting racism who ‘cause the most damage to people of colour’ because they imagine that they are anti-racist. Racism is, as she puts it, ‘unavoidable’.

More than 30 years ago, Ambalavaner Sivanandan warned against ‘the sort of psychospiritual mumbo-jumbo which… by reducing social problems to individual solutions, passes off personal satisfaction for political liberation’. A radical whose writings influenced a generation of activists in the 1970s and 80s, Sivanandan was an early critic of what was then called ‘racial awareness training’.

Two decades later, the US historian Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, whose politics are very different to those of Sivanandan, made a similar point. In her 2001 book, Race Experts, she tracked the shift from the social challenge provided by the 1960s civil rights movement to the view of racism as a problem of ‘interpersonal behaviour in need of therapeutic intervention’.

Another two decades and we have arrived at what the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, clumsily described as the ‘Black Lives Matter moment’. Facing criticism for doing so, Starmer referred himself for a dose of ‘unconscious bias training. For good measure, he mandated all Labour MPs to do so, too.

Starmer is not alone in seeking some kind of further education in anti-racist training. In 2017, a government report on ‘Race in the workplace‘ proposed that all workplaces should provide such training. Half of all middle-sized companies in America, and virtually every Fortune 500 corporation, already do so, as do many police forces, and even schools. It’s a lucrative industry – in the US alone, it’s worth an estimated $8bn. Sivanandan’s ‘psychospiritual mumbo-jumbo’ has become the money-spinning norm. 

At the heart of unconscious bias training is a controversial psychological technique called ‘implicit-association test’, or IAT. First introduced in 1998, IAT tests for the speed at which you associate particular categories, black people and white people, for instance, with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ attributes (‘violent’ or ‘intelligent’). Individuals who are quicker to associate black people with violence or white people with intelligence are supposedly revealing their hidden biases.

There is, though, little evidence that this is true. People tested several times often receive very different scores. A meta-analysis of almost 500 studies found that training has only a ‘weak’ effect on an individual’s implicit-bias score, and none on their behaviour.Training may even strengthen negative stereotypes.

The biggest problem, though, is that which Sivanandan and Lasch-Quinn warned about: the shift of focus from social change to personal therapy. Nobody actually says, ‘we don’t want to change society’. But by focusing on whiteness and personal psychology, the significance of laws and social structures is downgraded in favour of unconscious thought.

The therapeutic approach, Sivanandan presciently observed, turns racism into ‘a combination of mental illness, original sin and biological determinism’, an ‘”essence” that history has deposited in the white psyche’. Because ‘there is no escaping it’ – all white people are racist either consciously or unconsciously – it’s an outlook that is both pessimistic and divisive.

We all possess implicit frameworks through which we make sense of the world. It’s always useful to question those frameworks and interrogate our prejudices.

It was not, however, unconscious bias that made a police officer place his knee on George Floyd’s neck. Or that led to the Metropolitan police stopping and handcuffing Bianca Williams and Ricardo dos Santos, or to the equivalent of almost a third of young black males in London being stopped and searched during lockdown. Or that created the hostile environment policy and led to the Windrush scandal. These are all the products of very conscious policies.

The Black Lives Matter protests have brought the issue of racism to the heart of public debate. It would be a tragedy if all that energy is dissipated in irrational and divisive ideas of what constitutes racism, leaving the real issues untouched.


The image is from the Great Performers Academy; artist unknown.


  1. All that the Black Lives Matter protests have done is ingrained the implicit mental categories of black and white. Now we have black left, black right, white left, white right, anti-black left, anti-black right, anti-white left, anti-white right, whiteness, blackness.

    As a result, instead of racism, we have colourism and a public debate that revolves around imposed categories of colour. If you are in one colour category, you are expected to associate with a certain selection of policies and beliefs and if you are in another, another selection of policies and beliefs.

    The result is that one category of colour views another category of colour as racist, whether direct, reverse or inverted, for not associating with the ‘appropriate’ set of policies and beliefs.

    Colourism has taken scientific racism to another level in which racism has been politically commodified as a tool of coercion and conformity in accordance with the ‘appropriate’ set of policies and beliefs.

    Now discrimination and prejudism is normalised as failing to associate with a certain set of policies and beliefs. In effect, colourism has legitimised bigotry and turned bigotry into a virtue. So instead of analysing the reasons, intentions, costs and benefits of policy, everything is reducted down to colourism.

    Intolerance is the now the new norm which is justified by reducting everything down to colourism. Now we are all racists on the basis of our self or other prescribed policies which are determined by our different political hues of colourism.

  2. Andrew

    ‘the sort of psychospiritual mumbo-jumbo which… by reducing social problems to individual solutions‘

    I’m curious how you square this focus on the personal with the fact that the very same people constantly go on about racism/oppression being ‘structural‘ (it’s almost never clearly defined and seems to be used in a way that means everything and nothing). It’s usually mentioned in response to any suggestion that the individual agency of white people is in any way relevant. It seems tied to the quasi religious original sin nature of racism, but despite having read a fair amount on the subject I’m still really none the wiser how this self flagellating narcissism is supposed alter something that’s ‘structural’?

  3. Patrick Ainley

    We had all this with RAT in the 1980s! Sivanandan was a great repost as yours now!

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