The Differences between Bias & Racism

After the #BritishGP, I wrote a blog about bias and its impact on people's view of the crash between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton. I got a lot of questions about bias in general, some questions about the race, and a few essays about why Lewis/Max was in the wrong. I’ve refrained from giving my opinion about the incident, but did mention that bias is never an excuse for racism.

During Sunday’s #ItalianGP, it happened again. It wasn’t a big surprise, with the @Red Bull and @Mercedes championship battle being this intense. And again, I don’t really have an opinion about whose fault it was. I am just very thankful to the FIA for introducing the halo, and glad to see Lewis walk away from that incident in one piece. I do, however, have a very strong opinion about some of the reactions I’ve read following the incident. I took a plunge down the internet’s toilet, and found these gems. I’ve heard people say that these fans are just passionate, and biased towards their own sports hero. I disagree. There is a difference between bias and racism, and I would like to use this opportunity, and these examples, to explain it.

In-group favouritism is a form of unconscious bias that is related to our brains trying to keep us safe. It evolved over many years, in which we lived in tribes and had to tell friend from foe. A brain area called the amygdala took up the responsibility of keeping us safe. It gets input from all of our senses, which allows it to react quickly to immediate threats. Our amygdala has already decided if something is threatening before we know what exactly we are seeing or hearing. The thing is though: it’s quick, but also dirty. It will make decisions fast, but it’s not going to be too bothered with accuracy. If something COULD BE dangerous, it WILL BE dangerous to your amygdala. And remember, this is a prehistoric system that we are talking about. Back then social threats, like being in the vicinity of a rivalling tribe, could indeed be very dangerous. This is how in-group favouritism evolved. It is an unconscious, split-second threat reaction to anything that is labelled as ‘different from us’.

Stereotyping, linking specific characteristics to specific groups, is the rational component of this bias. This means there is a difference between having a subconscious preference for a specific group, in-group favouritism, and stereotyping, like saying women are emotional, white people can’t dance, or black people are loud. Racism is an extended form of stereotyping, but it is not synonymous to bias. It may also be mediated by threat reactions in the amygdala and it is definitely influenced by bias, but bias is innate. Racism is learned. Someone taught these people this behaviour is acceptable. In theory, this means they can unlearn it as well. In practice this may prove impossible. But if there’s one thing both Lewis’ and Max’s amazing careers tell us, then it’s that impossible is nothing.