‘You are Biased’. Accept that.

I’m not Bias – What is Categorisation?

Looking at the 3 pictures below, which person is darkest?

black white am darker.png

Look again








One more time.

black white am darker

Now let’s take away the features.


‘I am colour blind, I don’t see colour, I see and treat all people as human beings’

Aside from the ableist language. The above statements are inaccurate, yes, I know your eyes see the varying frequencies of light but obviously I mean the processing of people you observe by your brain.

Holguin et al 2000 took a racially ambiguous face (one that could fit various racial types from photofit software) and assigned traditional Latinx / black hairstyles. Then groups of latinx and black candidates were presented with a multitude of various photos and ask if they recognised/remembered the faces, there was a correlation between the Latinx and black candidates and the rate of recognising the face which they perceived to be one of their ‘in group’. This shows that people are more likely to recognise those who look like them.


Dr Eberhardt’s team from Stanford looked at MRI scans of white people’s brains when shown different faces. When shown the same white face the resulting brain activity dims, this makes sense your brain is processing the mass of cognitive input from all of your senses, your brain is trying to be more efficient, it works through the analogy of it has seen this before it doesn’t need to process it with the same effort as I did before, this is process called suppression.

What is fascinating is that when shown a multitude and variety of black faces the MRI scans showed similar results, your brain goes through the ‘I’ve seen this before I know what this is’ no matter how different the faces are. Your brain is not wasting its cognitive processing power on people of colour because it has seen them before and placed them in a category. Black faces and consequently, black people have been categorised.

What is Categorisation?

This is not the result of a diseased mind (this ode to another ableist call out (thank you to Danny Baker for highlighting)) which is not the result of a racist thinking or a racist mindset. It’s how the human brain works. That is okay. Yes, it’s okay to have biases.

I refer to bias as a habit of the mind. Your brain skips to conclusions because it’s easier, more efficient and this is an evolutionary necessity. Cognitive processing capacity is a finite and precious resource, evolution has designed our brains to use it sparingly.

How many of us check the road, stop, look (both ways) and listen when the traffic lights have turned red and signalled us to cross? It’s a given that red lights mean stop for cars.

Snakes signal fear, to most people (apologies to the herpetologists I have just ‘othered’ you). Seeing a snake, means to me, move and move quickly. This may be as a seen as an irrational act; my brain could act more rationally and try to remember the book I read as a child and remember that red on black … means … black on red … and now I’m dead.

With this mind, what associations do you think that we all form with people of colour?

  • People of colour (particularly women of colour) are not featured in blockbuster films. (As shown in this blog from Serdar Ferit @SerdarFerit) 
  • Black Caribbean boys with SEND are excluded 168 times than a white girl without SEND. (Report)
  • People of colour are vastly unrepresented in our school curriculum. (Blog)
  • Black Caribbean boys are twice as likely to be diagnosed with SEMH needs. (BBC article)
  • Black men are over 3 times more likely to be sectioned under the mental health act.Number of detentions under the Mental Health Act per 100,000 people, by broad ethnic group (standardised rates)
  • Pupils of colour are regularly under assessed when compared external terminal. (Blog)


  • One in seven prisoners is a British Muslim, compared to one in twenty-five in the wider population. (BBC Article)
  • Reporting of terrorists (Article)
  • Etc. Seriously I could go on all day.

Prototyping and Leadership Categorisation.

Categorisation comes from the brain’s attempt to be more efficient by grouping information together, creating a prototype is the first stage in that process. The brain assigns certain attributes to the typical role. For example, Firefighters are male, nurses are female, Doctors are male etc.

Leadership categorisation theory in which individuals will be evaluated as most effective when they are perceived to have prototypical characteristics of leadership Comparing a person to the (leadership) prototype is a recognition based process and this can influence perception (Lord and Maher 1991).

Leadership prototypes are formed when 1. When repeatedly people learn which characteristics are central among leaders and 2. The converse when they repeatedly learn which characteristics are NOT leaders. (Rosch 1978)

It is worth noting that this leadership prototype is impacted on by

  1. Gender
  2. Culture
  3. Politics
  4. Race

Rosette et al (2008)

Empirical data

In summary, people’s brains form categories of what leaders look like and this can change the way we perceive people, this is based on repeatedly seeing leaders with those attributes and repeatedly seeing non-leaders with those attributes. What your brain thinks a good leader looks like can influence your perception of the leader regardless of their actions.

Rosette et al Participants (all at undergraduates and with a racial mix) are were asked to read a newspaper story about an interview with either a leader or a non-leader from a business, the racial composition was manipulated (either 50% or 20% white).

Here if the candidate was being influenced by their leadership prototype then the expected result would that the leaders would be presumed to white regardless of the racial make-up of the company. Even if whites were in the minority of the workforce they would still be more likely to be leaders as opposed to non-leaders.

Racism Composition Leader Identified as white Non -Leader Identified as white
No Information 72% 56%

This shows that white people are much more likely to be thought of as the standard and there is a greater effect when talking about leaders.

What Happened When they told Candidates the Racial Make-up of the Company?

Racism Composition Leader Non – Leader
50% 82% 63%
Racism Composition Leader Non – Leader
20% 50% 37.5%

White people were more likely to be assumed to be leaders than employees in all settings. Now let’s consider what this actually means when the candidate is told that the company is 50% or 20% white, the likelihood of the assumption that the leader is white considerably higher, over (or equal to) 30% higher than the base rate itself. There was no significant dependency when considering the candidates own ethnicity, this means that this is ingrained across all of society, all races and genders.

In Today’s Society who do we see as Leaders in Education? Who do we not see as Leaders in Education?

BAME colleagues make 10% of the workforce and less than 3% of headteachers. When an interviewer and chair of governors see a candidate are they comparing them to the prototype of a good leader? Is this a possible explanation of the deficit in the role?

Racism from negative racial stereotypes (aversive racism) was found to consistently impact through bias against people of colour and favour white people in non-leadership and leadership roles (Aberson & Ettlin, 2004).

What Impact does this have in the Classroom?

Remember that class/group of pupils you disliked? Where you were worried about the behaviour? Generally, you found that the behaviour is worse. There are 2 different facets to this. Let’s start with talking about the cognitive bias, confirmation bias, this is means once an association has been made people will look for the same confirmation and reject information to the contrary.

Ross McGill Morrison (@teachertoolkit describes confirmation bias in his blog on cognitive biases)

There are many other types of bias I could have chosen, but confirmation bias is vital for all teachers to know, particularly those using social media. This is when an individual focuses on information that only confirms their existing preconceptions. An example:

“We listened to what teachers said. Most of them said that there was no problem.”

Or an example, when a teacher presents an idea to a school leader: “I’d like to use virtual reality in my classroom.”

School leader: “Ooh, I’m not sure this will work well with our behaviour policy.”

When we tend to search for, interpret, focus on and remember information in a way that confirms one’s perceptions. This is an irrational decision to be able to estimate correctly what is happening.

The other cognitive bias is to do with the day to day expectations we already know that teacher judge pupils of colour lower than where they are (Blog), what we expect from pupils has an impact on their actual performance. These are called the Pygmalion and Gollum effect.

Which can be summed up as

Gollum: Expecting pupils to be more confrontational actually increases the chances of them behave more confrontational.

Rosenthal or Pygmalion: Expecting a child to do well, actually increases the chances that they will do well.

  1. Associations are made.
  2. Expectation through Pygmalion and Gollum effect causes these behaviours to exist or to do be noticed more frequently.
  3. This reinforces the original association through confirmation bias (looking to confirm your association).
  4. Go to step 2 and repeat.

How do we interrupt the cycle? That’s for another blog, but it’s coming. There is much work to do.


Brössel, P. Rev.Phil.Psych. (2017) 8: 721. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-017-0359-y





Eberhardt J (2019) The New Science of Race and Inequality Biased. London: Penguin Random House UK.

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