What is unconscious bias?

The way you see the world is different to the way I see the world. Our experiences are based around perceptions we have. These beliefs are often learnt and passed down through generations. 

Perceptions are what we use to understand and make sense of things that arouse our senses. Our senses are what we use to recall these memories. This neurophysiological process interprets an event or thing that evokes a reaction. These reactions are what can lead us as people to see each other through different lenses. It can take us down the path of seeing people as inferior. The person who sees themselves as superior may well be unaware of their reaction. 

This is unconscious bias at play. 

What does it mean? How does it affect our daily life? This complex unconscious prejudice can affect anybody either by working against, or in the favour of the person or group compared to another that is viewed to be unfair. It affects us more than we realise. These prejudices that we have are what lies beneath our beliefs and attitudes towards others. These thoughts we have that are attributed to individuals and groups are called stereotypes. This stereotyping affects the way we engage and communicate with the individual or group. Unlocking the route of these prejudices that can lead to actively discriminating against people is the key to opening our hearts and minds which will allow us to connect.

Compassion is lost with our kind. I say that with a very heavy heart, as although there are well meaning individuals amongst us, we seem to have forgotten what it means to be a member of society. Each one of us is a member of society but as we look back over the years in history it is clear to see that the concern for one another and moving forward as a collective has been long forgotten. Was it ever part of the agenda? The need to group and segregate is a well-oiled machine amongst us humans. We use these systems as a way of separating and labelling each other. But why? Who does it serve? Who does it benefit?

I’ve always been plagued by the constant generating of labels. It could be because I am persistently forced to place myself in one of the categories or groups that I feel are not necessary or fitting to me. I appear to be a person from a ‘third world’ or ‘developing’ country, when in fact I was born right here in the UK. My appearance judged and me labelled by the largest organ I possess, my skin. Should it really matter where I was born? No, not really. Should it matter what shade of colour I have? No, not really. Unfortunately, now because of these systems that have over time penetrated the minds of our fellow men, we are where we are. And where we are is a place of negativity, pain and suffering which is just being played out in different ways, in many different bodies. 

I have often dreamt of a time where we all live together harmoniously, literally singing from the same hymn sheet. We all know each other’s name and care for the well-being of each other. Yes, we bicker from time to time, but not because of our skin or gender. We bicker because we are all unique and have our own minds, and have different desires, but we want everyone to succeed and be well. Like I said, it’s just a dream, but we all have them....

The bias that these systems depend on when you look into them originate from a place of power, strength and creativity. Observing these qualities can be threatening if you are coming from a place of doubt and self-consciousness. We often find that when people are feeling low and not fulfilled in themselves, they project these big feelings out into the world. The world we are living in is full of these negative projections. The thoughts and beliefs, fantasies and imaginations from the mind of people who are in fact vulnerable and traumatised.

How often do we project on to others and put them into labels; even give them a name and backstory in our minds? I can admit to you all that I do it often. I have to remind myself when I am in that mindset that there is something going on for me, that needs working on. 

Why am I feeling triggered? 

I feel intimidated, threatened, attacked, bullied and suspicious because of a preconceived idea about this person. I don’t know for sure, but all of a sudden, this person has been generalised because they fit the bill for my category that deems me powerless. I need to be cautious. 

As I mentioned there are many different labels and categories that people can fall into and depending on what category you fall into the generalisation characteristics will differ. However, the feelings they arise are in fact the only thing that should be generalised. No one person is the same. Don’t judge a book by its cover is an age-old term which is well known but not lived by or practiced enough. 

How are we to see each other for who we are if all we see are characteristics. These characteristics in this instance are just words. Words in our minds that we have projected onto another and insisted they own. The power of these words is life changing, damaging and dangerous. If looks could kill is another age-old term. These terms exist for a reason. 

The way we look, and the way people imagine us to be a lot of the time because of the race construct is synonymous. Living with black skin can get you killed in an instant. Looks can literally kill. 

Unless you know me personally, if you saw me on the street, you may imagine me to be a black angry woman, who loves chicken, can dance, and sing and is a domestic worker. These are the profiles of black woman that are circulated in the media, portrayed in TV, books and films, passed down from generation to generation. The black man, the criminal, the well-endowed, sexual virile who doesn’t work or look after his children and preys on white women. These stereotypes are intimidating to those that don’t fit the mould and to keep everyone safe, fear is circulated and then preyed upon.

Changing how we look at each other, needs to start with how we see ourselves. 

When training to be a psychotherapist, I had to go back to the beginning and unpack my childhood. It was during that time that I realised that I had a mammoth task ahead of me. I was discriminated against and often experienced racial prejudice unbeknownst to those that were engaging with me. The ‘othering’ and isolation that I experienced during that time of journeying unveiled a lot of what is missing from our field. 

We enter this field with a desire to support, help and empower those that need a voice yet in the books we read when training, the voices we heard from were from the same label. A Eurocentric frame and voice. Leaving the majority of those that need our services without a voice, as there has been no real emphasis put on these labels in terms of understanding which is so important and necessary in the health professions.

We therefore are at a place now, where the majority of psychotherapists and counsellors who identify as white are having to make sense and learn as they go with clients who identify as black or as a person of colour. Colleagues have shared that they feel ill equipped due to the lack of training. Having to manage their own stereotypes and unconscious bias can be tough, something that should have been addressed way back when is now raising its head and leaving all those involved in a space of discomfort.

Have you ever wondered why the statistics for those diagnosed with a mental illness is high in the black community? I was not surprised. I have struggled with my mental health over the years and have found it difficult to be authentic. The reason being is because my insecurity came into play. I didn’t trust that my therapist could hold and understand my experience as a black woman living in the UK. As a community, we carry a lot of trauma and are treated on a daily basis like second class citizens. These projections and the ancestral baggage that is carried by the community has led to an increase in bodies calling out for help and for understanding.

Our lives are complex with so many layers that are intertwined which doesn’t make working through this theme of unconscious bias easy. As with most things, the key to change is to start with yourself and to start at the very beginning. The black community are yearning for some compassion, love and understanding and to be welcomed back into society. 

Nerissa is running a series of training days for The Sunflower Network across 2022 that will explore Unconscious BIas & Anti-Racism. They can be attended individually or as a series of CPD events, but please note places are limited for each workshop. See the event page for more details.


The Sunflower Network provides a platform for professional community members to publish articles on this website. The views expressed in this article are those of the article author.

Nerissa McDonald

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I am a Black Integrative Child and Adolescent psychotherapist. I have a BA in Music Industry Management and Marketing, an MA in Integrative Child Psychotherapy which I gained at the Institute for Arts in Therapy and Education (IATE) and am also a Certified Cyber Therapist. I am a registered member of BACP and a UKCP accredited Child and Adolescent psychotherapist. I work with a cultural lens creatively with children to help them understand and make sense of their story.

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