Why Prince Harry Is (Still) Wrong About Unconscious Bias

Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images.
By now, you would have undoubtedly seen or heard about at least one of Prince Harry’s interviews discussing his new memoir, Spare. Since its release on Tuesday, 10th January, Spare has "smashed all records for any first-day nonfiction book sale", having sold 1.4 million copies on the first day of publication (in the US, Canada and the UK). In his first round of interviews promoting the book, the Prince sat down with British ITV Journalist, Tom Bradby, in Harry: The Interview. Amongst many of the bombshells that he dropped in the 1-hour 14-minute programme, Harry spoke about unconscious bias and how he believes it to be different from racism. But his comments on the matter, in my opinion, indicate that he still has a lot more to learn about racism.
Since striking up a romance with Meghan Markle back in 2016 and subsequently going on to marry her publicly in 2018, Harry stumbled into a rude awakening. Through his proximity to his wife, he started to understand what racism is. However, whilst the Prince has been increasingly outspoken about racism and his wife’s experience of it over the years, particularly in relation to the press, becoming an ally and the fight against racism is still very much a process. And this recent interview, and his book, highlights more about where Harry is in this journey.
In an attempt to explain what unconscious bias is, the 38-year-old Duke of Sussex said in Harry: The Interview that there is a “difference between racism and unconscious bias. The two things are different”. In his account, it seemed like Harry was presenting unconscious bias as somewhat of a qualifying determiner to see whether someone’s beliefs are racist or not. The Duke then went on to add that if you choose not to do something about your unconscious bias, that is when “unconscious bias moves on into the category of racism.”
But this shows that Harry still has a lot to learn because unconscious bias, whether the perpetrator is or isn’t aware of it, is still racism. A racist act or belief, whether intentional or unintentional is still racist because of the negative impact it has. If we are to really define unconscious bias in relation to racism, it is a preconceived belief that an individual is unaware they have. In effect, this bias has a negative impact on the way you either see or treat someone of a different race. We all have different biases within us. Some of which we may not be aware of until we are corrected and some of which we absolutely are aware of. However, a racist action or belief in itself is not determined by whether the person performing the action is aware of it or not. The danger of separating unconscious bias from racism is that it reduces accountability by using the more flattering word “unconscious” and disassociating it from the very obvious unflattering stigma attached to the word “racism”. Racism, very rightly, carries a heavy load with it and therefore people are more willing to accept “unconscious bias”, if it is removed from racism.
Author and activist Dr Shola summed up this notion very well in her tweet in response to Harry’s comments in relation to unconscious bias and racism. She tweeted: “Prince Harry you’re WRONG. There’s ZERO difference between racist conscious/unconscious bias & racism. Bias is the presence of racism & the actions/words are proof therein.” Similarly, writer and social media commentator, Kelechi Okafor, said: “Unconscious bias is unaccountability by another name.”

[Prince Harry's] failure to acknowledge unconscious bias as racism, is unfortunately another example of how the monarchy tip toes around real issues around race without calling it out as what it is.

Harry’s lack of understanding of what racism is, also rears its head when he discusses the recent incident between Lady Susan Hussey and the founder of the Black Women’s Domestic Violence Charity, Sistah Space, Ngozi Fulani. Fulani was bombarded with questions about where she is from by Hussey in a classic othering strategy that Black people are all too familiar with being on the receiving end of. Whilst on one hand, Harry admitted that he is “more than happy” for the two to meet and reconcile following the incident, he also went on to say that “I also know that… she [Hussey]… never meant any harm at all,” speaking of Hussey’s original exchange with Fulani. Again, this comment focuses far too much on the intent of the perpetrator, which reduces how serious racist beliefs and actions are. The term “unconscious bias,” leads to comments like this being made, rather than focusing more so on the racist effect and problem at hand.
Prior to watching this particular interview, admittedly I was too optimistic about the level of understanding I thought Harry had about racism. As the interview progressed, I realised just how much he still has to learn. I think the most surprising comment he made that showed his lack of understanding, or perhaps unwillingness, to accept what is racist, was when he addressed the comments Meghan made in the Oprah interview over a royal family member having “concerns” about the potential colour of his then unborn son, Archie. Like many, when this was let out to the world, it was interpreted that whoever said this, was making a racist remark (because it is). But when asked by Bradby in the ITV interview whether he believes that comment was alleging racism, Harry responded: “I wouldn’t. Not having lived within that family.” He then went on again to try to clarify the difference between unconscious bias and racism. But failing to admit the racism present in the monarchy, halts the progress that needs to be made.
Photo: ITV/Shutterstock.
It’s no secret that the monarchy was built on racism as the British Empire was fuelled through slavery. Because of this, it would actually be more surprising if there was no racism in this very same institution. Harry admits that the monarchy has a responsibility, as “quite rightly, people hold you to a higher standard than others”. But by him labelling racist actions from within the monarchy as “unconscious bias”, he is halting real progress in dismantling racism, therefore, whether intentionally or intentionally, acting as an enemy of progress in the very thing he claims to be fighting against.
If Harry is hellbent on wanting to compare unconscious bias with something, he should rather use the term unintentional racism (unconscious bias) vs intentional racism. However, at the end of the day, they are both still racist and equally unacceptable.
In summary, whilst Harry has shown that he is working towards becoming an ally for the Black community, his failure to acknowledge unconscious bias as racism, is unfortunately another example of how the monarchy tip toes around real issues around race without calling it out as what it is. Of course, in every family, there is grace to excuse certain things and accept imperfect aspects of character. But racism, whether conscious or unconscious is not one of these things and should not go unchallenged. Once we start calling racism what it is, the more those who truly want to dismantle it can work towards seeing true progress. To quote Harry once more, in the interview he said: “At this point, the world is asking for accountability.” This accountability includes calling actions what they are and that includes calling unconscious bias what it is: racism. However, in his attempt to explain the unconscious bias, there is one thing he was right about. He said: “If you are called out for unconscious bias, you need to make that right.” I, too, believe that redemption is possible for everyone — whether intentionally or unintentionally racist. But it first takes full accountability in order for this to be achieved.
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