Dr Pragya Agarwal is a behavioural scientist, race educator, journalist, 2 x TEDx speaker and author of the amazing book, ‘SWAY: Unravelling Unconscious Bias’, that unravels the biases we all carry. In our Chai Time we talk about how these biases shape our views and behaviour and why we act the way we do, and how we can make a change. Watch the live here.
What have you been discussing recently?
Racism can become such a black and white issue, and really, we have to look into our own communities and see how we have enabled racism for so long. Recently though, although protests around the world began with very explicit police brutality, I think what people are starting to realise is that racism doesn’t always happen like that. When you are not aware of the different forms of racism, it is very easy to say that we are not a racist society anymore. So, with my book I wanted to make people aware of certain unconscious biases and stereotypes that we carry. Stereotypes can very easily transcend into prejudices. People are increasingly talking about micro biases and the small but harmful way they can affect people’s daily lives; healthcare bias, which has also become especially prevalent throughout the Pandemic. I have noticed people are talking about history, how that is taught and what is not taught, as well as the ethnic advancements received by some authors.
What are common unconscious biases that we carry?
We carry a lot of cognitive biases, which are essentially shortcuts that we use to manage all the information we are bombarded with on a daily basis. They help our brain process information by matching it to existing templates in our brain. But sometimes this shortcut can result in errors such as racial bias, hierarchy, ageism and even expectations of an ideal body type.
How do you deal with this when it is engrained in a culture?
In Indian culture for example, there has always been more of a preference towards fairer skin, and recently we have seen really important role models like Bollywood stars or social media influencers, speak out about topics such as colourism and break down some of the stigmas and barriers. Role models, representation and education are really important for awareness and change.
What is your take on the Asian conversation amidst the Black conversation? Are you having a lot of conversations about South Asians too?
Yes, of course. Many people have reached out, speaking about their experiences of microaggression, abusive language and teasing. I think the current movement can trigger a lot of emotions for many people, but I don’t think it’s the right time to centre that conversation.
When you realise you have had bias, or you realised you have been a victim of bias, how do you deal with this?
I see anger as a powerful force for change. Establishing how to keep the current momentum going is a really important focus.
What made you write your book? What is next for you?
I had a child very young and came here to study as a single mother and along the way I have had a fair share of racial profiling at airports, with the police and so on. I think all of this made me really aware of how people’s privileges really affect their experiences in life. The book is a combination of my personal story, academic research and my values. I am also currently writing my next book, focusing on my personal experiences and the notion of womanhood.