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  • Roger Kline

False harmony and the embedding of inequality

“My father values talents. He recognizes real knowledge and skill when he finds it. He is colorblind and gender neutral. He hires the best person for the job. Period.”Ivanka Trump

Liz Truss, the Minister for Women and Equalities, said too much ground had been ceded to the Left on issues of identity: “We need to reassert the value of individual and character above the particular type of group you might happen to be a member of…I think there’s been too much identity politics in Britain.

Big changes in social policy are often preceded by little noticed germination of ideas. Liz Truss has form with ideas that have traction. She is one of the authors of Britannia Unchained, an influential 2012 Conservative manifesto (other authors included Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab) which called, amongst other things, for radically reducing regulation (including EU regulations the UK had helped draft).

It seems timely, therefore, to explore why Liz Truss’ approach to tackling discrimination and inequality, denying the importance of “identity” and treating discrimination as a matter of individual success (or failure), would embed inequality and discrimination and would help reverse the gains that have been made (albeit too slowly) in the last two decades.

Data on “identity” is crucial in challenging discrimination

Firstly although some inequality and discrimination is overt and thus easier to challenge, often it’s more subtle. Working class children, for example, have a greater likelihood of ill health, shorter life expectancy, poorer exam results and jobs than children who go to public school. This is the result of multiple, systematic obstacles and a lack of opportunities, not evidence of lack of individual ambition or the result of a meritocracy.

Inequality and discrimination of all kinds is deeply embedded in our society and in institutions such as workplaces. A case by case challenge is largely reliant on individual anecdote and challenge, and is likely to fail. Robust evidence of patterns of inequality will help identify whether, how and where discrimination takes place.

Changing such patterns of discrimination is almost impossible unless we accept that people are treated differently (as a group) according to their characteristics (class, ethnicity, gender, disability) since those causing such inequality will either deny being discriminatory or not even realise they are discriminating (unconscious bias).

Data driven accountability is normal in most decision-making, not least since it is very unusual to find a “smoking gun” of admitted discriminatory bias. Without some means of categorising (and thus providing data on) the identities of those who may face unfair treatment, it’s impossible to understand either the scale of discrimination or its nature, or how to reduce it. Identity – and means of quantifying it – are crucial to evidence driven policy.

Our identity is a crucial part of who we are

Secondly, social class, gender, ethnicity, disability and other identities are a crucial part of who we are and what we bring to work and elsewhere. It’s important to all of us. It shapes our experience of the world. It gives us insight, and skills that others with different identities may not have. It directly affects our experience and opportunities throughout our lives including the connections and networks that will ease our path through life. So when interview panels look for recruits who will “fit in”, our identity directly affects whether we do.

Unless teams, employers and Governments acknowledge the “identity” of staff at work is a crucial part of who we are, they cannot develop strategies that enable us to draw on everyone’s potential, recognising that the different experiences that staff have are defined in crucial ways by their identities.

There is now overwhelming evidence that diverse teams where difference is recognised and welcomed (inclusion) are more likely to be effective, creative, innovative, productive and profitable than those which are not. Denying or ignoring those differences means we are unable to discuss or turn them into positives. If identity “disappears” what happens to inclusion and the benefits it can bring?

Who benefits (or not) from ignoring ”identity”?

Thirdly, those who “don’t notice” identity and suggest it is possible (or preferable) to ignore the differences that help make us what we are, whether well intentioned or not, can lead such managers, leaders and politicians to be unwilling or unable to acknowledge the systematic bias and discrimination that we know exists.

As Weingarton neatly puts itSocial psychologists have also noted that the myth of racial or gender blindness is one that is useful only to those in the dominant group. People who are marginalized or in lower-status groups don’t have the luxury of being blind to the identities of others; to be effective communicators at work, they need to understand the prevailing codes there, even if this awareness doesn’t always rise to the conscious level.”

White men in particular (I am one) have been the beneficiaries of centuries of well-honed positive action. A belief in meritocracy, or claiming to ignore identity, shows a lack of awareness of our own unconscious or automatic mental responses, and of the advantages that those proposing that we ignore identity enjoy. The individualistic focus of “merit” places responsibility for discriminatory employment outcomes on the shoulders of the unsuccessful, stigmatising them as incompetent or undeserving. It also ignores the possibility that “merit” is largely defined by those who have benefited from existing definitions.

The more people think they’re objective decision-makers, who take no note of identity and are unbiased, the more they may make biased choices. For groups such as scientists, lawyers, accountants and academics, for whom “objectivity” is regarded as a key part of their identity, admitting bias in attitudes or decision making may be particularly challenging.

Dovidio and colleagues (2016) reviewed some of the literature on the impact of colour blindness and identity and concluded that “seemingly well-intended policies and interventions to reduce intergroup bias by emphasizing colorblindness through overarching commonalities between groups may, either unintentionally or strategically, inhibit efforts to address group-based inequities.”

Their summary argues that members of advantaged groups, who wish to maintain the status quo, prefer to focus on shared identity to the exclusion of differences whereas disadvantaged groups seeking to alter the status quo show a greater desire to talk about differences between the groups albeit simultaneously being willing to discuss shared aspects of identity.

The personal impact of a denial of “identity”

Finally, colour blindness, gender neutrality and other denials of the importance of identity impacts personally on both advantaged and disadvantaged groups.

Holoien and colleagues (2011) found that “hearing colorblind messages predict negative outcomes among Whites, such as greater racial bias and negative affect; likewise colorblind messages cause stress in ethnic minorities, resulting in decreased cognitive performance”.

Dovidio (above) highlights research illustrating how the cognitive demands of suppressing the activation of difference can create communication problems such as hesitations and reduced responsiveness. If a White person espouses colour-blindness, they may be more interested in monitoring their own performance than learning about the needs and concerns of the Black and Minority Ethnic person they are with.

Other research suggests that when White people espouse a colorblind orientation they are less positive and supportive, avoiding topics that would bring to light meaningful differences than other White people who took a different approach that acknowledged differences between them and Black participants in the interaction.

In contrast, those with a multicultural perspective which appreciated both common connections and differences, were much more positive and likely to see the value of the distinctive potential contributions of members of different group, respect members of other groups and seek to promote diversity for common advantage.

Crucially, members of non-dominant groups whose identity is not recognised may allow their identity to become invisible, not only to others but for themselves. They may thus improve their own careers or life chances but this may be at the cost of the benefit of their “subgroup identity” and social support from other members of their subgroup.

The active masking of difference, “covering”, by members of non-dominant groups in an attempt to ‘fit-in’ and side-step “minority stressors” has significant costs since “when an individual’s behaviour or state of being is incongruent with their cultural values, the individual’s self-concept, self-worth, and well-being are negatively impacted.”

Yoshino found that 32% employees who engage in “covering” reported it negatively impacted their sense of self that at an organisational level this “emotional dissonance” acts as a demotivating force that can negatively impact engagement. He found that employees who engage in “covering” strategies to fit into dominant organisational norms were 16% less committed to the organisation, 14% had a lower sense of belonging to the organisation, 15% were less likely to perceive having opportunities to advance, and 27% were more likely to have considered leaving the organisation in the past twelve months.


Any benefits from the apparent inter-group harmony gained by “colour-blindness” and other forms of denying the importance of identity are unlikely to lead to, and indeed can prevent, efforts to challenge the institutional and societal obstacles to equality, diversity and inclusion.

Liz Truss’ views individualise the challenge to inequality, undermining collective challenge and institutional interventions. This is even more important when the erosion of (already weak) employment rights is likely post Brexit. The emphasis on individual effort rather than collective challenge overlaps with the suggestion (contrary to the evidence) that we live in a meritocracy where all may equally, , irrespective of identity, rise to the top.

Social policy and employment decision making cannot be dependent on anecdotes or individual challenge. The Macpherson Report (1998) analysed discriminatory practices within the Metropolitan Police and described “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin.

“It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

Applied to all types of identify within employment, such “processes, attitudes and behaviour” become a means whereby employers systematically (often unintentionally) undermine the career opportunities and treatment at work of any disadvantaged groups of staff and potential staff, whilst simultaneously denying any effective redress. Such institutional discrimination may be driven not only by ethnicity, but by gender, disability, sexual orientation, class and so on.

Mitigating or removing those processes, attitudes and behaviours which produce biased outcomes in recruitment, development, investigations and treatment depends upon appreciating identity, collecting and analysing data based on identity, and holding leaders to account so they act to tackle patterns of inequality, not just individual episodes. Appreciating difference in identity is crucial to creating inclusion.

Liz Truss’s proposal ignores the systemic, societal and institutional obstacles to equality. Her vision embodies a false harmony, symbolised by “colour blindness”, “gender neutrality” or “not noticing people’s class”. It may seem superficially attractive but, far from reducing inequality and discrimination, it will embed it.

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