Stories of Unconscious Bias

Stories of Unconscious Bias with Smita Tharoor

Follow Smita Tharoor on Instagram or Twitter to keep up to date with new episodes of the Stories of Unconscious Bias podcast

We take our upbringing for granted and it was only with the benefit of hindsight I realised how lucky I was. Growing up in pluralistic India taught me the value of tolerance and the appreciation of accepting differences.

I arrived in London after my undergraduate degree in the 80’s with a firm sense of my own identity and a belief that the world is an accepting inclusive place. It was only through sharing stories that I began to realise that I truly had an accepting, liberal, non-judgemental, secular upbringing. There was very little in my backpack that was influencing me unconsciously. I was very fortuitous.

We are defined by our narrative, our personal story, our experiences. These have an impact on how we make judgements and form opinions. A lot of time that’s just fine but every once in a while, we make snap conclusions that have a negative outcome either for the other person or ourselves. Just one particular experience can lead to a lifelong belief. 

Knowledge is power, and I firmly believe through learning and reflecting we can effect positive change.

Since starting my own company Tharoor Associates in 2009, I have had the privilege of hearing some wonderful stories from different parts of the world. These stories were all shared in the context of understanding our Unconscious Bias. As I heard them, I realised that other than some obvious cultural differences, we all have very similar experiences. I wanted to share these stories with a wider audience, so I decided to have podcasts on the unconscious bias.

I have had the huge privilege of talking to a wide range of people around the world from California to New Zealand to Bombay with London in the middle. They share their stories and how those experiences have impacted on their unconscious biases. They tell us, the listener, what they learned from those experiences.  

To begin a real process of change, we have to look at our own Unconscious Bias and move away from these potentially damaging patterns of behaviour. Assumptions are internal; we carry them around like a backpack on our back. Before any change can be made in any relationship, we need to look into our backpacks.

I do hope that these stories will resonate with you and will help you the listener reflect and look into your backpack. Happy Listening.

Series 2

Shashi Tharoor, author of 20 books, former Under Secretary General of the United Nations, current Member of Parliament of Trivandrum, Kerala and my brother.

“You are different – your accent speaks of privilege. Foreign living and foreign exposure, and therefore you’re not authentically one of us is what some people think. Accent can be used to separate people from the person noticing the accent.”

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Dr. Ghida Ibrahim is a global citizen with many hats; a technologist, a data scientist, a tech for good entrepreneur, a community builder, a lecturer, a speaker who has appeared on TEDx, a World Economic Forum appointed domain expert and an occasional standup comedian.

“If you’re able to speak many languages, this means that you’re able to live many lives, or be immersed in many identities” “Be the best version of yourself and then the world will adjust to you eventually”.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

David Knaus is a collector and patron: focused on photography and contemporary arts – he works actively with photographers consulting on the placement of their archives so their work is both preserved and publicity accessible.
“I mean, I say to people in this country, you know, not everybody who voted for Trump is an idiot. There were a lot of smart people who voted for the guy, just look at the numbers. You look in London with Brexit, a lot of smart educated people voted for Boris Johnson. And I don’t think you can dismiss that.”

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

“I remember going into the Miss England competition being told by my organisers, just go take part – the Asian girls never do well. And I basically got told you’re not going to win because the Asian girls don’t do well. And I remember being at the competition and confirming this bias. “
Bhasha Mukherjee is the reigning Miss England and NHS  front line worker in the battle against the Covid 19 pandemic.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

In early September of 2019, Aditya Atri was defined by what he did for a living, what car he drove, what were his origins, what was his status in society. Post late September 2019, it is about Aditya Atri who has cancer, who should be looked at differently. He is a patient and expected to behave in a certain manner, that is defined by the biases people have about what a cancer patient should look like. How should a cancer patient behave? Are you defined by your cancer?

Aditya Atri has over 30 years’ experience as an advertising and marketing executive He has managed large consumer facing programmes and campaigns for both local and multinational brands across South Asia, Middle East and Australia. He has held leadership positions across financial services, retail and marketing communication companies.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

“I guess I could see unconscious bias in other people’s ideas of a Muslim. You could be White, Asian, Black, you could be from any type of background. It’s a religion, like other religions where you choose to become a Muslim and fall in that religion. People make a lot of assumptions, on what a Muslim looks like. It could be anyone.”

Matt Henderson is originally from Scotland and lives in Yorkshire. With over 20 years’ experience as a community worker, Matt is currently working as a project manager for Bradford for Everyone, a UK Government social integration pilot programme.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Content Warning: This episode deals with material of a sexual nature.

“The Kama Sutra was written in metaphors. And it talks about pleasure so delicately and with such elegance and refinement that it actually inspired about 2000 years of ancient Indian literature.”

Seema Anand is a mythologist and a storyteller with a focus on women’s narratives and a specialty in the erotic literature’s of ancient India. Seema believes that the narrative of the Kama Sutra was deliberately silenced. This was the first text to give women a platform of equality.
Seema Anand is also the author of The Arts of Seduction.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

“A lot of the young people that I work with, see themselves in a troubled state. But the minute they start engaging with something positive, they have an identity shift, they start to position themselves as an artist. And that takes them away from what they perceive themselves to be in the past. We can all create these identity shifts, but it’s about just taking that one positive step and having a reinforced positive loop to keep going.”

Rosemary Jane Cronin is an artist and university lecturer specialising in fine art, gender and psychoanalysis who has exhibited and performed at The Freud Museum and The National Portrait Gallery in London. Her film Reverie was selected by the Guggenheim Foundation as part of their ‘Under the Same Sun’ season in 2016. As an educator, Rosemary works for the Outreach department at University of Arts London and museums and galleries across London to help make art accessible for all.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

“When I pray five times a day, it’s interesting that the way I start my prayers, I refer to God, as the God of all creation. I don’t say the God of Muslims ,I say the God of all creation which includes everyone on Earth. So that’s part of my faith. And that’s why I feel that my faith underpins and underlines the way I behave, and I interact with people.”

Reza Beyad is a multilingual entrepreneur, philanthropist and fundraiser. He’s a practising Muslim who completed his schooling from a Jesuit school. One of his main interests is to engage in constructive interfaith dialogues and help build bridges between different faiths and communities. His own faith underpins his efforts to create a more caring, just and inclusive society. In 2014, for his work in this regard, he was given the freedom of the City of London.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Series 1

For Episode 1 of Stories of  Unconscious Bias, join Smita Tharoor in a conversation with Bollywood actor Vidya Balan.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Episode 2 of Stories of Unconscious Bias, join Smita Tharoor in conversation with  award winning war correspondent of The Times, Anthony Loyd.
Select any of the following platforms to listen:
In part two, Anthony Loyd speaks of his experience discovering Shamima Begum in a refugee camp in Syria. “The worst moment for me was of realising how much the focus of rage – for conscious and unconscious bias – that she became to this society.”
Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Brendan Gilbert is a born and bred Londoner of West Indian Heritage, who runs a security systems company based in South London.

“We’re all human beings you know, let’s just get on. And I think that’s where I kind of say brush it off, but be able to keep going.”

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Nitin Sawhney is a CBE, a composer, producer, and multifaceted polymath who engages with the arts in every conceivable way through the filter of music.

“The colour of my skin marked me out as it didn’t matter whether I was an immigrant or from immigrant heritage, it was the colour of my skin that they saw and attacked, which is why I wrote an album called Beyond skin rather than beyond heritage or beyond anything else. It was actually the fact that your skin colour will be the first thing that people encounter or will see.”

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Cheryl Hernandez is an executive trainer, life coach, author and international  speaker from Trinidad & Tobago who has spent over 40 years helping clients to improve their personal and professional relationships – from CEOs to teenagers. Formerly a music teacher and ordained minister, Cheryl is known for her ability to turn difficult students and employees around.

“And one thing about our culture that makes it a little challenging for us when we come abroad and places like the UK and the US, some of the biases and the discrimination goes straight over our heads, because we’re not accustomed to it.”

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

AJ Juer is a transgender guy living in New Zealand. He’s currently based in Christchurch, where he studied at the National Academy of singing and Dramatic Art. AJ has a degree in performing arts, and is now pursuing a career as an actor.

“I accepted transgender people, but in my head, and this was something that I wouldn’t say to anyone, I sort of thought, Oh, isn’t that weak to change your body like, shouldn’t you accept your own body.”

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Nandita Das is an actor and director and has acted in more than 40 feature films in 10 different languages. Nandita has been passionately supporting the campaign against colour bias, ‘India’s Got Colour’. She was conferred the ‘Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters’ by the French Government and was the first Indian to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the International Women’s Forum.

“The minute I would do the role of an educated woman, an affluent person, I will immediately be told either by the director or the camera person or the makeup person that I know you don’t like to lighten your skin. But just for this, could you, because this is an educated open character.”

The charity Nandita supports “India’s Got Colour

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Neena Bhandari has been a career journalist for over three decades. She has worked in India, the UK and Australia, writing on a range of issues from Health and Science to Environment and Development, gender and human rights to travel and indigenous issues.

I was at an international conference and had a very interesting conversation with one of the speakers who had walked up to my table. But when I met him outside at the end of the conference, he was shocked with disbelief on his face when he saw me walking with a caliper because he had no idea that I had a disability.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Giles Duley is a documentary photographer and storyteller, whose work focuses on the long term impact of conflict. Giles is also the CEO of the charity, Legacy of War foundation.

I was injured in 2011 while working in Afghanistan. I stepped on a landmine and lost my legs and my arm. I was 39 years old when that happened. And I went from being a white, privileged, middle class English man who travelled the world who had a very privileged position( and I was aware of that) to somebody who’s living with a very serious disability. And it was interesting because I suddenly saw how the world treated me differently.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Google the name “Lemn Sissay” and all the returning hits will be about him because there is only one Lemn Sissay in the world. Lemn Sissay is a BAFTA nominated award winning writer, international poet, performer playwright, artist and broadcaster and Chancellor of The University of Manchester . Lemn Sissay was awarded an MBE for services to literature.

“What happened to me is that because of unconscious bias, I was stolen from my mother, I was stolen from my family. I was brought up in institutions, with foster parents who I believe, had a lot of unconscious biases towards people of colour.”

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Stories of Unconscious Bias with Smita Tharoor

We take our upbringing for granted and it was only with the benefit of hindsight I realised how lucky I was. Growing up in pluralistic India taught me the value of tolerance and the appreciation of accepting differences.

I arrived in London after my undergraduate degree in the 80’s with a firm sense of my own identity and a belief that the world is an accepting inclusive place. It was only through sharing stories that I began to realise that I truly had an accepting, liberal, non-judgemental, secular upbringing. There was very little in my backpack that was influencing me unconsciously. I was very fortuitous.

We are defined by our narrative, our personal story, our experiences. These have an impact on how we make judgements and form opinions. A lot of time that’s just fine but every once in a while, we make snap conclusions that have a negative outcome either for the other person or ourselves. Just one particular experience can lead to a lifelong belief. 

Knowledge is power, and I firmly believe through learning and reflecting we can effect positive change.

Since starting my own company Tharoor Associates in 2009, I have had the privilege of hearing some wonderful stories from different parts of the world. These stories were all shared in the context of understanding our Unconscious Bias. As I heard them, I realised that other than some obvious cultural differences, we all have very similar experiences. I wanted to share these stories with a wider audience, so I decided to have podcasts on the unconscious bias.

I have had the huge privilege of talking to a wide range of people around the world from California to New Zealand to Bombay with London in the middle. They share their stories and how those experiences have impacted on their unconscious biases. They tell us, the listener, what they learned from those experiences.  

To begin a real process of change, we have to look at our own Unconscious Bias and move away from these potentially damaging patterns of behaviour. Assumptions are internal; we carry them around like a backpack on our back. Before any change can be made in any relationship, we need to look into our backpacks.

I do hope that these stories will resonate with you and will help you the listener reflect and look into your backpack. Happy Listening.

Series 2

Shashi Tharoor, author of 20 books, former Under Secretary General of the United Nations, current Member of Parliament of Trivandrum, Kerala and my brother.

“You are different – your accent speaks of privilege. Foreign living and foreign exposure, and therefore you’re not authentically one of us is what some people think. Accent can be used to separate people from the person noticing the accent.”

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Dr. Ghida Ibrahim is a global citizen with many hats; a technologist, a data scientist, a tech for good entrepreneur, a community builder, a lecturer, a speaker who has appeared on TEDx, a World Economic Forum appointed domain expert and an occasional standup comedian.

“If you’re able to speak many languages, this means that you’re able to live many lives, or be immersed in many identities” “Be the best version of yourself and then the world will adjust to you eventually”.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

David Knaus is a collector and patron: focused on photography and contemporary arts – he works actively with photographers consulting on the placement of their archives so their work is both preserved and publicity accessible.
“I mean, I say to people in this country, you know, not everybody who voted for Trump is an idiot. There were a lot of smart people who voted for the guy, just look at the numbers. You look in London with Brexit, a lot of smart educated people voted for Boris Johnson. And I don’t think you can dismiss that.”

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

“I remember going into the Miss England competition being told by my organisers, just go take part – the Asian girls never do well. And I basically got told you’re not going to win because the Asian girls don’t do well. And I remember being at the competition and confirming this bias. “
Bhasha Mukherjee is the reigning Miss England and NHS  front line worker in the battle against the Covid 19 pandemic.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

In early September of 2019, Aditya Atri was defined by what he did for a living, what car he drove, what were his origins, what was his status in society. Post late September 2019, it is about Aditya Atri who has cancer, who should be looked at differently. He is a patient and expected to behave in a certain manner, that is defined by the biases people have about what a cancer patient should look like. How should a cancer patient behave? Are you defined by your cancer?

Aditya Atri has over 30 years’ experience as an advertising and marketing executive He has managed large consumer facing programmes and campaigns for both local and multinational brands across South Asia, Middle East and Australia. He has held leadership positions across financial services, retail and marketing communication companies.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

“I guess I could see unconscious bias in other people’s ideas of a Muslim. You could be White, Asian, Black, you could be from any type of background. It’s a religion, like other religions where you choose to become a Muslim and fall in that religion. People make a lot of assumptions, on what a Muslim looks like. It could be anyone.”

Matt Henderson is originally from Scotland and lives in Yorkshire. With over 20 years’ experience as a community worker, Matt is currently working as a project manager for Bradford for Everyone, a UK Government social integration pilot programme.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Content Warning: This episode deals with material of a sexual nature.

“The Kama Sutra was written in metaphors. And it talks about pleasure so delicately and with such elegance and refinement that it actually inspired about 2000 years of ancient Indian literature.”

Seema Anand is a mythologist and a storyteller with a focus on women’s narratives and a specialty in the erotic literature’s of ancient India. Seema believes that the narrative of the Kama Sutra was deliberately silenced. This was the first text to give women a platform of equality.
Seema Anand is also the author of The Arts of Seduction.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

“A lot of the young people that I work with, see themselves in a troubled state. But the minute they start engaging with something positive, they have an identity shift, they start to position themselves as an artist. And that takes them away from what they perceive themselves to be in the past. We can all create these identity shifts, but it’s about just taking that one positive step and having a reinforced positive loop to keep going.”

Rosemary Jane Cronin is an artist and university lecturer specialising in fine art, gender and psychoanalysis who has exhibited and performed at The Freud Museum and The National Portrait Gallery in London. Her film Reverie was selected by the Guggenheim Foundation as part of their ‘Under the Same Sun’ season in 2016. As an educator, Rosemary works for the Outreach department at University of Arts London and museums and galleries across London to help make art accessible for all.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

“When I pray five times a day, it’s interesting that the way I start my prayers, I refer to God, as the God of all creation. I don’t say the God of Muslims ,I say the God of all creation which includes everyone on Earth. So that’s part of my faith. And that’s why I feel that my faith underpins and underlines the way I behave, and I interact with people.”

Reza Beyad is a multilingual entrepreneur, philanthropist and fundraiser. He’s a practising Muslim who completed his schooling from a Jesuit school. One of his main interests is to engage in constructive interfaith dialogues and help build bridges between different faiths and communities. His own faith underpins his efforts to create a more caring, just and inclusive society. In 2014, for his work in this regard, he was given the freedom of the City of London.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Series 1

For Episode 1 of Stories of  Unconscious Bias, join Smita Tharoor in a conversation with Bollywood actor Vidya Balan.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Episode 2 of Stories of Unconscious Bias, join Smita Tharoor in conversation with  award winning war correspondent of The Times, Anthony Loyd.
Select any of the following platforms to listen:
In part two, Anthony Loyd speaks of his experience discovering Shamima Begum in a refugee camp in Syria. “The worst moment for me was of realising how much the focus of rage – for conscious and unconscious bias – that she became to this society.”
Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Brendan Gilbert is a born and bred Londoner of West Indian Heritage, who runs a security systems company based in South London.

“We’re all human beings you know, let’s just get on. And I think that’s where I kind of say brush it off, but be able to keep going.”

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Nitin Sawhney is a CBE, a composer, producer, and multifaceted polymath who engages with the arts in every conceivable way through the filter of music.

“The colour of my skin marked me out as it didn’t matter whether I was an immigrant or from immigrant heritage, it was the colour of my skin that they saw and attacked, which is why I wrote an album called Beyond skin rather than beyond heritage or beyond anything else. It was actually the fact that your skin colour will be the first thing that people encounter or will see.”

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Cheryl Hernandez is an executive trainer, life coach, author and international  speaker from Trinidad & Tobago who has spent over 40 years helping clients to improve their personal and professional relationships – from CEOs to teenagers. Formerly a music teacher and ordained minister, Cheryl is known for her ability to turn difficult students and employees around.

“And one thing about our culture that makes it a little challenging for us when we come abroad and places like the UK and the US, some of the biases and the discrimination goes straight over our heads, because we’re not accustomed to it.”

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

AJ Juer is a transgender guy living in New Zealand. He’s currently based in Christchurch, where he studied at the National Academy of singing and Dramatic Art. AJ has a degree in performing arts, and is now pursuing a career as an actor.

“I accepted transgender people, but in my head, and this was something that I wouldn’t say to anyone, I sort of thought, Oh, isn’t that weak to change your body like, shouldn’t you accept your own body.”

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Nandita Das is an actor and director and has acted in more than 40 feature films in 10 different languages. Nandita has been passionately supporting the campaign against colour bias, ‘India’s Got Colour’. She was conferred the ‘Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters’ by the French Government and was the first Indian to be inducted into the Hall of Fame at the International Women’s Forum.

“The minute I would do the role of an educated woman, an affluent person, I will immediately be told either by the director or the camera person or the makeup person that I know you don’t like to lighten your skin. But just for this, could you, because this is an educated open character.”

The charity Nandita supports “India’s Got Colour

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Neena Bhandari has been a career journalist for over three decades. She has worked in India, the UK and Australia, writing on a range of issues from Health and Science to Environment and Development, gender and human rights to travel and indigenous issues.

I was at an international conference and had a very interesting conversation with one of the speakers who had walked up to my table. But when I met him outside at the end of the conference, he was shocked with disbelief on his face when he saw me walking with a caliper because he had no idea that I had a disability.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Giles Duley is a documentary photographer and storyteller, whose work focuses on the long term impact of conflict. Giles is also the CEO of the charity, Legacy of War foundation.

I was injured in 2011 while working in Afghanistan. I stepped on a landmine and lost my legs and my arm. I was 39 years old when that happened. And I went from being a white, privileged, middle class English man who travelled the world who had a very privileged position( and I was aware of that) to somebody who’s living with a very serious disability. And it was interesting because I suddenly saw how the world treated me differently.

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Google the name “Lemn Sissay” and all the returning hits will be about him because there is only one Lemn Sissay in the world. Lemn Sissay is a BAFTA nominated award winning writer, international poet, performer playwright, artist and broadcaster and Chancellor of The University of Manchester . Lemn Sissay was awarded an MBE for services to literature.

“What happened to me is that because of unconscious bias, I was stolen from my mother, I was stolen from my family. I was brought up in institutions, with foster parents who I believe, had a lot of unconscious biases towards people of colour.”

Select any of the following platforms to listen:

Follow Smita Tharoor on Instagram or Twitter to keep up to date with new episodes of the Stories of Unconscious Bias podcast

6 Comments

  • Jyotika Diggi

    Superb,candid,clear and most women would relate immediately to what was being discussed

  • Mahesh Menon

    Quite thought-provoking – to listen and reflect on the common theme of hidden bias through the diverse and gripping stories across different contexts – cultural, gender, work… looking forward to the future episodes 👍

  • It’s been really fascinating listening to this series. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the range of perspectives presented, and this week you’ve done Trinidad. My birthplace! So pleased to see hear a Caribbean voice add our 2 cents. It’s been a real eye opener seeing the similarities and differences between the interviewees’ experiences, and then comparing each to my own experience. I especially like how Smita Tharoor summarises the comments and almost underlines the bias and thinking that triggers it. A truly thought provoking podcast. I need Ms Tharoor in my head doing some underlining whenever my biases rear their ugly heads.

  • Insightful, engaging and captivating series of conversations that would interest any and everyone. Highly recommend.

  • Debashis Paul

    I would recommend to all that you take time out to listen to the series ….Aditya Atri ,a successful corporate executive now dealing with cancer – his remarkable attitude comes through his words , so thought provoking and raises the issue of hidden biases to another dimension as he narrates his interface with medical treatment ….thank you Smita Tharoor and Aditya !

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