Oprah in Zurich – blatant prejudice or unconscious bias?

Published on: Mon 19 August 2013 by Admin

There are two situations in the media this week that apart from making me personally feel very uncomfortable, also made me feel like I had been transported back to the dark days of blatant discrimination and prejudice. The first situation referred to a car salesman, who at the age of 52 was told he was over the hill and was sacked because of his age. Despite protests by his employer that he was dismissed due to under-performance issues, the courts disagreed and the employee was awarded thousands of pounds in compensation.

I was also horrified to read that, despite being one of the world’s richest women,  talk show host Oprah Winfrey encountered racism while out shopping in Switzerland when a shop assistant in Zurich refused to show her a handbag because she thought it was “too expensive” for her.

In this day and age apart from finding these situations distasteful, I also find both remarkable that with all the Equality and Diversity legislation and awareness in both the UK and Europe that individuals can still treat others in this way. But is this a case of blatant prejudice or is it a case of unconscious bias?

Any form of discrimination is destructive and counter-productive to the wellbeing of us all. We know that people discriminate consciously either due to prejudice or through ignorance.

However, what is less known is that people often make choices that discriminate against one group in favour of another without even realising they are doing it. This might occur in situations regarding another person’s race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, or even their size or height. What is perhaps more striking is that it is against their own conscious belief that they are unbiased in their decision-making.

However, once awareness of bias is raised from the unconscious to the conscious level, attitudes and behaviours can change and people start to appreciate the consequences of their behaviour and decision-making.