Michaela Coel on the Persistent Problem of Subconscious Prejudice

Now the first Black woman to win an #Emmy for outstanding writing in a limited series, Michaela Coel has broken new ground. Still, as she argues in this 2018 essay for British Vogue, visibility can’t undo centuries of social conditioning

9/20/2021 7:38:00 PM

Now the first Black woman to win an Emmy for outstanding writing in a limited series, Michaela Coel has broken new ground. Still, as she argues in this 2018 essay for British Vogue, visibility can’t undo centuries of social conditioning

“There weren’t any Black people in the pub to challenge your great-great-great-grandmother’s subconscious. There weren’t many Black people in the first-class queue to challenge your grandmother’s. But perhaps your logical, rational, empathetic self has caught your subconscious like a deer in headlights.”

I May Destroy You.Still, as she argues in this 2018 essay for BritishVogue,visibility can’t undo centuries of social conditioning.I’m on my way to the airport. What takes me there? A screening ofBlackMirror—I’m lucky to be in two episodes of this incredible show, and the screening is in New York. But I’m late, stuck in traffic, knowing I’ve missed my flight. “Oh, we’ll just pop you on the next one, madam,” says the person at the Virgin desk. “Free of charge, of course.” My tears freeze in their ducts. I come to understand that I have opened and entered a new portal. Upper Class. This is nuts.

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I go to check in my luggage and, as usual, feel sweaty and don’t know why. “You’re Upper Class, Mucks!” I tell myself as both my bags and body are scanned through machines I have no control over. “No one is going to grope you, no one is going to plant drugs in your bag.”

I arrive at boarding: Economy on the left, Upper Class beside it in the corner. I join the Upper Class queue behind two well-dressed Black men. Half a minute later, a white woman speed-walks past me and the two guys, into the wall. “Where’s th…?” She blinks, gives a look somewhere between embarrassed and apologetic, then U-turns and joins the back of the queue. headtopics.com

It’s… whatever. Until I start wondering what she expected to find between the queue I’m in and, well, a wall. I turn to her, smile. “Is it your first time flying Upper Class with Virgin?”“Me? Oh no, no,” she replies. “I’m just blind as a bat.”I smile—“Safe travels”—and turn back. I’m intrigued at how her actions confused her as much (or as little) as they did me. What happened? Did three Black people signify a queue she usually walks to the right of? I called my wonderful ally of an agent, who gasped, “Whadda bitch!” But I disagree. Sarah’s probably not a bad person (let’s call her Sarah to represent all really lovely, nice people). She’s probably a good person, maybe she works for Comic Relief, practices veganism, teaches yoga and mindfulness; all while juggling two children, a failure of a husband, and a mortgage.

If, in that moment, I had turned to her and, in my best Californian-teen voice, whined, “That’s prejudice, you stereotyper! We’re all equal!” she’d likely have been stunned at what would have appeared to have been a bewilderingly loud and disproportionate reaction. For Sarah it was a simple, innocent mistake. Perhaps she would have found herself in tears. “You’re the one judging me! I’m not a bad person. I’m not a…”—then she would introduce a word never previously mentioned—“racist!”

Sarah would be angry. Dare I say it, she’d have every right to be. Why? Well, she is blissfully ignorant of the dots her brain joined up to cause the blooper that became the very inspiration for this article.To suggest things may be going on in our brains that we aren’t fully conscious of, that we unknowingly make classist, sexist, and racist presumptions… Well, there just aren’t many comfortable ways to take that. And in the face of discomfort comes the mask of defense. In my perfect world, in the quiet moment of isolation before she sleeps, Sarah remembers the incident at the airport, and the questions creep in… “Could I have assumed because those people were Black, that it was not my queue? Why?”

It strikes me as odd that we’ve made journeys with our social conditioning in certain areas, but not in others. The world is always changing; discoveries in technology and science relentlessly expose our dearest values as fictions. The unpredictability of the weather, the increasing possibility of intelligence introducing a species more powerful than ours, the growing uncertainty that animals can or should be slaughtered for our pleasure, has led many of us to start asking more complex questions about what is and isn’t normal. headtopics.com

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It’s the freeing of your minds from history we want.Socialization is not optional. It’s an inescapable contract, and our birth into the world is our signature of agreement. Norms and ideologies vary from society to society, and most of them weren’t formed during our lifetimes but were handed down from one generation to the next.

Just as the trace of a woman you’ve never met (as she’s been dead 200 years) is responsible for that single dimple on your left cheek, traces of the values of the societies our great-great-grandmothers lived in can be found in our brains. A shared, collective history exists in our DNA.

If it was only in 1928 that women got voting rights on equal terms with men in the U.K., is it any wonder that women internalize sexism? (I was at a party recently listening to women saying that when married they want nothing else but to serve a man and be led by him.) And when we have been told by kings and legislators and religious texts over centuries that homosexuality is wrong, is it any surprise that same-sex love is still penalized with death in many countries? Only the other day, my cocoa skin may have boiled to a visible red when informed by my (now ex-) hairdresser that “most lesbians are rape victims too scared to be with men again.”

OK, let’s stay on track with race-gate. In 54 BC Britain was introduced to the concept of slaves— not as slave-owners, the Brits were slaves themselves. But between 1562 and 1807, British ships took an estimated 3.4 million enslaved Africans to the Americas. As each socialized generation inherited the values of its predecessor, the normality of slavery became questionable; campaigns sprang up, and after years of pressure slavery was abolished. For slave-owners, some of whom regularly beat those they’d enslaved, this was disruptive—for business, but not necessarily for morals. There was no state-sponsored therapy to assist in the removal of old beliefs. Rather, they were given payouts. There was no lesson learned on actual equality for many of these people. They were essentially paid to comply. It wasn’t even 200 years ago. headtopics.com

Objective reason and empathy ensured a future in which Black people could work, vote, fly Upper Class, and be in front of Sarah in a queue. But there are still traces, albeit less and less perceptible, bad as well as good, from our 19th-century ancestors that linger.

And that flight to New York just gets weirder. A woman in her late forties wakes up from a snooze. She takes her sleep mask off and looks at me as if she left a dream and entered a nightmare. It’s only for a few seconds. Perhaps I’m being paranoid, but five minutes later she calls a stewardess and I hear her say: “I don’t think that person was there before.” (I swapped seats with a steward to use the power socket.) Most of Upper Class stare. The children, too. I return one woman’s gaze. Like cats in an alley, we hold this peculiar stare until she chuckles and breaks contact. I’d love to talk to her about it, but as with the other passengers, it’s not a question for her. It’s for her subconscious.

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One of my best friends has just become a father. He’s an active ally, not for the shallowness of a retweet, but for the fight for human equality. He’s done amazing work on reconditioning his mind, and helped me recondition mine, but he’s honest with me: “Because I’m white, so is my baby—to top it off he’s a boy, in a middle-class home I worked hard to buy. And because of the cards he’s been dealt he’s public enemy number one. I want him to have a world of opportunities, too. I don’t want him to struggle.”

We are not campaigning for you to hand over your money, job, Upper Class flights and land, so that we, the formerly dispossessed, through generations of privilege discover that riches don’t make us happy either. Nope. Rather it’s the freeing of your minds from history we want. For you (not all of you, but definitely those currently outraged, ambivalent, or eyeballing these words with a cat-like stare) to accept that you have been socialized with good morals, bad morals, and useless old values that take form in subconscious thoughts you’ve never before addressed. And it’s not your fault. None of us signed that contract willingly. What is your responsibility, however, is how you respond to this news. Or whether you care at all.

There weren’t any Black people in the pub to challenge your great-great-great-grandmother’s subconscious. There weren’t many Black people in the first-class queue to challenge your grandmother’s. But perhaps your logical, rational, empathetic self has caught your subconscious like a deer in headlights.

Lucky you for being presented with a rare, exciting opportunity; to have mastery over your mind. My friend wants his newborn boy to live “in fairytale bliss.” What he really means is “in ignorance,” inside a bubble of privilege. But perhaps he’ll grow up in a different bubble—one in which inherited privilege isn’t to be safeguarded against perceived external threats, but exposed as a randomly dealt card that only exists by disempowering and holding back the opportunities and growth of others.

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