Reflections on Rotherham & Stereotype Threat

If there’s even an ounce of truth in the claim that fear of appearing to be racist played a role in allowing the systematic sexual abuse of girls and young women in Rotherham to go unchallenged, we all need to take a very long pause for breath… It’s not a matter of mud-slinging between those who wave the ‘political correctness gone mad’ banner on the one hand, and the ‘that’s just a lame excuse for unforgivable professional incompetence and cover-up’ brigade on the other. What we know about unconscious processes, and the phenomenon of stereotype threat, or anxiety, in particular, is that they can result in apparently perverse, disproportionate or irrational behaviour in normally competent people. And they cannot be addressed by simple sloganeering.

It’s a fact that, for whatever reason, many white people we encounter in our work the find that the accusation of ‘racism’ strikes a kind of terror in them which they find very hard to handle. We have seen evidence of this in highly defensive behaviour many kinds during our time as corporate trainers and consultants. Race, and colour in particular, seems to have an intense ‘heat’ in it, and seems to arouse a level of feeling which frequently threatens to disrupt otherwise ‘good-natured’ training events.

At the heart of this ‘heat’ appears to be less a sense of indignation and outrage at the appalling acts carried out against humans by other human as a result of racialist thinking; more the utter dread that ‘someone might think I am a racist’. I have on occasion asked people whether they are more afraid of really doing something racist, or of being thought of as racist – a question which rarely gets answered, as the respondent usually seems to struggle with the cognitive dissonance it causes them.

Claude Steele’s excellent work on stereotype threat, Whistling Vivaldi, gives us one insight into why this might be: basically, white people – aware of the negative stereotype of their group as ‘racist’ – when triggered by circumstances which are racially charged, can experience a level of anxiety which leads them unwittingly to try and over-compensate in order to disprove this stereotype. Whilst neurological resources are taken up with this intra-psychic tension, they are diverted from the real task at hand eg managing poor performance in a Black member of staff or, indeed, identifying telltale signs of grooming of white girls by Pakistani men. In our experience, the fear of being labelled racist seems to tirgger a particularly deep insecurity in the higher status (in this case white) group. Does this arise from the longevity, global reach and well-known excesses of colour-based racism? That’s the subject of another blog, I think…

Whilst this insight cannot on its own explain a problem of the vast scale of what happened in Rotherham, if there is even an ounce of truth in the concept of stereotype threat, we need to consider that it may well have played a key part in the course of events – at the very least in the initial reluctance of several professionals from different agencies to identify the possibility of systematic criminal behaviour, and to investigate and confront it properly. There must also have been institutional failings – some of which may arise from unconscious processes, but still others may involve levels of conscious knowledge of serious wrong-doing deliberately suppressed by key people. There will be no easy answers as to why this happened, or how to prevent it from happening again – even as we speak.

It’s important that people involved in the scandal take their share of responsibility. But there’s no point just ‘laying blame’. As David Eagleman eloquently describes in his book Incongito, unconscious processes operate in a way that the conscious mind has very limited access to. It takes considerable skill to learn to use that limited access to improve one’s performance under stress: yet this is exactly what is needed among professionals in safeguarding roles. In other words, we could do worse than help these key people understand how unconscious processes can de-skill otherwise competent individuals, leading at times to truly awful outcomes. And we can give them tools to use conscious awareness to stop and notice when this is happening – to them and others – and to act decisively to prevent the ‘rot’ spreading further through increased fear and silent collusion.