Dealing with Unconscious Bias | Karen Safo-Barnieh

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The mere thought of walking into the office with a new hairstyle made me nervous and anxious and more often than not my colleagues wouldn’t recognise me. On one occasion a colleague mistook me for Sarah in finance and yes, she’s also Black with the same hairstyle. Comments with the assumption that I can twerk, run a 100-meter race and sing is exhausting and debilitating. They relate to subtle forms of racism derived from stereotypes associated with race.

Binna Kandola expresses how these stereotypes are formed: “Many of us would never describe ourselves as racist. We might not like to think about it, but the moment we set eyes on someone, we begin to form an impression of them that is based on the colour of their skin, their gender – even their name. This is unconscious bias”.

Due to the subtle nature of unconscious bias, the discourse among Black people in not addressing comments like this is, “just leave it, they won’t understand”, “I’m not here to educate them”, “If I say something they will think I am aggressive” and one that I have personally said in the past “I don’t want to perpetuate the angry black woman stereotype”.

In 2018 the Guardian reported of 1,000 people from minority ethnic backgrounds found they were consistently more likely to have faced negative everyday experiences – all frequently associated with racism – than white people in a comparison poll. The survey found that 43% of those from a minority ethnic background had been overlooked for a work promotion in a way that felt unfair in the last five years – more than twice the proportion of white people (18%) who reported the same experience. David Lammy said, “stereotyping is something that is felt, and it feels like sheer terror, confusion and shame.”

There became a time where I was exhausted of moaning with other BAME colleagues about the micro-aggressions, unconscious bias and lack of diversity and inclusivity in the workplace. The energy in battling unconscious bias and micro-aggressions daily is crippling as demonstrated by the figures above, we shouldn’t have to put up with it.

So, I decided to do something about it. Below are some of the things my colleagues and I did:

1. Find or create a BAME group
It is important to form a group as it will not only foster wellbeing but provide for a safe space to create action. After speaking to other colleagues, we formed the Mosaic Working group where I was Co-Chair.

2. Keep your boundaries
Starting a working group can be draining and frustrating, a lot of time is needed to flesh out your objectives, vision and mission statement. Seek assistance from HR as this encompasses parts of their objectives. When doing so be sure to set the expectations between your group and HR and be clear about the roles within the group committee.

3. It’s all about buy-ins
This was an incredibly tough pill to swallow. You need by-ins from your allies (in most cases, white staff) in the hope of changing the culture of the organisation, you cannot expect to change things with engagement only from ethnic minorities. After several consultations before launching the Mosaic working group, many of the white staff wondered whether they could be part of the Mosaic working group. They wanted to be allies, which was a great way to gain buy-in from our white staff.

4. Collaborate with other networks – called it the intersectionality group
I set up an intersectionality group bringing together other networks within the organisation who were championing Women’s rights, LGBTQ, Trade Union/Labour rights. It is imperative to gain support from the other networks to gain each other’s insight and share approaches in strategising campaigns and challenges. Remember it all starts with you, turn negativity in positivity, you would be surprised how much you can influence the culture and behaviour in your workplace.

Karen Safo-Barnieh

Karen is a Barrister-at-Law and human rights activist with several years in the international development sector. Karen’s main interest is in natural resource governance and the development of African states. As a result, Karen founded the project Youth Development Ghana at the age of 17, a project aiming to emancipate many from the injustice derived from unfair trade.

Karen, a recipient of the Deans Fellowship Award and Future of Ghana 30 under 30 2018, has written articles with the Congressional Black Caucus in the USA, The Voice and many Ghanaian outlets on the interplay between law and development on the African continent. She is an advocate for inclusion within the international development sector.

Whilst working at Save The Children International, she created and co-chaired Mosaic, a group promoting diversity and inclusion of BAME groups within the NGO sector.

If you would like to connect with her contact her via LinkedIn – Karen Safo or email

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