Understanding unconscious bias

A woman with red lipstick and gold earrings against a dark grey background.

London-based jeweller and member Roxanne Rajcoomar-Hadden explores how unconscious bias negatively impacts Black business owners

By Roxanne Rajcoomar-Hadden   Above image by Lily Bertrand Webb   Wednesday 22 July, 2020   Short read

While the COVID-19 pandemic now feels more manageable and life starts to resemble a ‘new normal’, lockdown gave us all time to reflect on pretty much every aspect of our lives. We have thought about what is important to us, what makes us tick, and seen the strength in our friendships, family and communities. 

When lockdown was in full force, the clever entrepreneurial minds of our local businesses were particularly appreciated. My local sourdough bakery turned into a general grocer, while a local store that sells dried goods by the gram started selling other essentials and delivering, too. We saw that it’s possible to stick together as a community, to serve and assist each other wherever we can. 

We even took to the streets to support the Black community. When it came to fighting for the everyday equality of Black people – a plight that we’ve been fighting for as long as we can remember – it felt like social distancing didn’t matter as much as the calls for equality. That in itself felt promising.  

It did make me wonder, however, how the black tiles on Instagram and the BLACK LIVES MATTER poster boards that were suddenly popping up everywhere would translate to real life. How would we ensure equality in everyday life, particularly post COVID-19? 

Every business has struggled during this time. Black-owned businesses are much more likely to fail than those set up by non-Black people. This is for a variety of reasons, including the fact that funding is offered far more infrequently to Black businesses. When it comes to lending, financiers often deem Black-owned businesses as ‘high risk’. What’s more, the often-poor education and career opportunities provided to young Black people, the sparse paid apprenticeships available, as well as the lack of mentorship schemes means that the disparities are vast from the offset.  

Once we have finally set up a business, we then have unconscious racial biases to contend with. As a jeweller, this is something I struggle with greatly. My designs have been copied and sold on large, online luxury shopping platforms, despite being previously declined by those retailers with the same design and price point. Consciously or unconsciously, non-Black people do not seem to have the confidence and trust in products created by Black people.

In an effort to get around this, many Black businesses model their pieces on White people to make them seem more relatable. I admit to doing the same. Those pieces have done better than those modelled on my Black hands, or on the ears of a mixed-race, curly haired model.
A model wearing gold jewellery.
A black model wearing gold jewellery.

'Consciously or unconsciously, non-Black people do not seem to have the confidence and trust in products created by Black people.'

But how do we change the unconscious racial biases that mean Black businesses are at the mercy of those few clients who consciously shop? Those who buy something because they like the design, not just because the person who made it makes them feel like it must be more representative of them? 

It begins by recognising – and putting into action – the fact that just because someone has a different colour skin to you, doesn’t mean their entirety is different to you or that they are unrelatable. If anything, it means that they need more support and encouragement. 

It takes a lot of work to retrain the brain to change our unconscious bias, and some professors say it is near impossible, especially when raised in a world where systemic racism is the norm. I hope, with all the time at home, we have had the opportunity to reflect, gain new perspectives and relate to each other. We can collectively desire change, and therefore act more consciously when making decisions. We can also raise the next generation with the awareness that we didn’t have.

Interested in becoming a member?