The impact of cognitive ‘propaganda’ on minority ethnic workers

Last month, The Ivy Asia issued a formal apology after its ‘culturally insensitive’ and ‘totally inappropriate’ ad campaign sparked outrage from critics and members of the public.

The now-deleted social media video featured two characters dressed as Geishas in a series of humiliating scenarios, including the end scene where they fall through the restaurant doors in front of a crowd of judgemental faces.

The video was shared widely on social media, with many people accusing it of being racist and fuelling anti-Asian stereotypes. In response, The Ivy Asia said it was done ‘naively’ and with a ‘complete ignorance of understanding’.

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The problem here is that no matter how sincere the apology is, the damage has already been done. Viewers have been subjected to clear racial stereotyping that will only serve to affirm the unconscious biases they’ve accumulated throughout their lifetime; the racial stereotypes that exist all around us, both overt and covert.

We’ve all experienced similar imagery and storytelling in the past, probably on multiple occasions. And while most of us don’t consciously subscribe to these stereotypes, they automatically embed themselves in our unconscious mind.

This then creates a set of expectations when we meet a particular person in real life or see them on TV and social media. Through a process of confirmation bias, we start to notice small things that confirm these beliefs, to the point where we’re effectively seeing what we want to see.

How this manifests varies from person to person. But the impact on the other person is both real and potentially very harmful when the stereotypes are predominantly negative.

From over scrutiny in sport, to the exponential rise in racial prejudice experienced by Asian people during the coronavirus, our unconscious expectations create bonds that heavily restrict what others are allowed to do and change our behaviours towards them.

In the workplace, this can often impede minority ethnic employees from being promoted, or even recruited in the first place. This results in a lack of diversity and inclusion within the team and leaves minority employees feeling undervalued and isolated. It’s often our own unconscious biases that’s holding back many minority ethnic employees in the workplace from reaching their full potential.

If we are to rid ourselves of these bonds, we need to de-propagandise our own automatic and unhelpful beliefs – a term used by the late American psychologist Albert Ellis. In this context, propaganda refers to the images, behaviours and tropes we’re exposed to from a really early age, which permeate our thoughts and potentially change the way we view the world around us.

De-propagandising our beliefs starts with creating awareness of how our own intuition can be faulty and misleading. This can be through the use of tools such as unconscious bias training.

We then need to motivate ourselves to proactively test our intuitive response and put the effort into thinking more deliberately – or what is known as System 2 thinking, where we’re making slower and more analytical decisions (as opposed to System 1 thinking, which is the brain's fast, automatic, intuitive approach).

Lastly, we can use what are known as disputing techniques to challenge our thoughts and gradually change our unhelpful beliefs over time. Two useful disputing techniques are comparisons and counterpoints.

Comparisons allows us to identify and challenge inconsistencies in our intuitive thinking. For example, black people – including children – are more likely to be incorrectly viewed as being angry. This has important implications for how behaviours are viewed.

For example, The Times reported how Kamala Harris had suffered a negative reaction in a Democratic candidates’ debate when she "wagged her finger at Joe Biden". We can dispute the automatic negative thinking ("She's being aggressive, I don't like that") by comparing the behaviour to others (“How do I feel when other nominees in the debate do that?”)

Counterpoints enable us to think more flexibly by reframing what we are seeing. For example, by considering why the behaviour can be reasonable or valid (“Actually, using body language to support a point is a normal part of debating”). This approach allows us to reconsider, and dispute, our automatic reactions which will typically be negative when the other person is in a minority or out-group.

This same process can be applied to any minority group – be it based on gender, race or sexual orientation. By working on ourselves and our own cognitive behavioural patterns, we can become more disciplined and considered thinkers. This in turn will create room for greater inclusion in and out of the workplace – challenging the existing norms within our society that serve to oppress.


James Meachin is partner at business psychology firm Pearn Kandola