Most of us believe we are fair-minded and egalitarian, but we all carry unintentional biases; from our attitudes to different accents and the way people look, to implicit prejudices that are sexist and racist. This compelling, revelatory and non-judgemental book does a brilliant job of unravelling a range of such biases, drawing on the latest scientific findings about what happens in our brains when such responses are activated. Agarwal is a behavioural and data scientist, activist and writer who, as a woman of colour, also brings an enlivening personal perspective to bear.
Despite doubts over particular methodologies, we can agree that there must be something to the idea that racist and sexist prejudice can operate below conscious awareness, and Sway succeeds impressively in its drive to show that justice is undermined by a rich array of social biases about age, gender, race, accent, and so forth. Unconscious bias is a plausible explanation for why so many white American policemen, even those who are not explicitly racist, end up shooting so many unarmed black men; why hurricanes given women’s names (eg, Katrina) are perceived as less frightening than those with men’s names; and why nearly a fifth of people in Britain who are stopped in the street and asked to prove their immigration status are, in fact, British. (Agarwal is appropriately scathing about the “post-racial” claim that there is no racism in Britain any more: an idea, I have noticed but she is too polite to say, that tends to be most eagerly promoted by those who are, in fact, racists.) One can disagree with her presentation of the science, but Agarwal’s diagnosis of the political harms of bias is passionate and urgent.
Ultimately, this book, an attempt to elucidate unconscious bias, serves to complicate it further. Agarwal dedicates far too much time to overloading us with information and not enough to setting out a vision for the future. As a result, her call for society to rally against the prejudice that comes from unconscious bias is likely to fall flat. There is simply not enough of a practical vision to effect substantial change.