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Unconsicous bias can leave even well-meaning organisations with blind spots on diversity and inclusion. Roxan Kamali-Sarvestani explains what they can do to avoid this – and how Talawa Theatre Company is supporting them.

A Black person covering their each eye with their hands, palms facing towards the camera

When Black artists are working in theatre, it’s essential they are not faced with systematic racism and can create work that is meaningfully supported by allies.

To achieve this, some organisations are taking a long hard look in the mirror to see whether they are operating with diversity in their hearts rather than just on their grant application forms.

It’s not always obvious, which is why Talawa is delivering unconscious bias training – supporting Black artists by supporting the wider theatre sector to recognise their own blind-spots and take a truly inclusive approach in their work.

Of course it’s not just in the arts where unconscious bias lies, which is why our work is expanding beyond the sector, helping businesses and organisations to confront and dismantle learned stereotypes, automatic patterns of thinking and behaviours, and discriminatory practices and policies within the workplace, and enabling them to implement change – not just talk about it. 

Authentic and immersive

Unconscious bias, diversity and anti-racism training will only succeed if it has impact and authenticity – something that Talawa’s Black and ethnically diverse team is able to offer.

Lived experiences are at the root of our training. The hands-on and immersive approach is developed with whole organisations, involving staff at all levels and areas in an organisation. This ensures there is company-wide understanding of the barriers that unconscious bias and racism create. This in turn provides opportunities for individuals, teams and organisations to hold themselves to account and find solutions for embedded change.

All sessions are delivered with a mix of practical activities and experiential learning, which requires active participation and dialogue. These activities are designed for participants to gain a deeper understanding of perspectives beyond their own lived experiences – a prerequisite for shifting the attitudes of individuals or their organisations.

We start by helping people identify their own bias and guiding them through areas of their lives that they may not have thought about. This is the spring board for them to discuss how they felt and what they experienced. It allows them to consider their own privilege, or lack of it, and relate this to the experience of others and the impact this can have on people’s lives. These reflections are then linked back to the workplace, for everyone to consider how this understanding may influence decision making, moving from unconscious to conscious action.

Confidence to speak out

Another form of training we offer addresses the challenges facing Black, Asian and ethnically diverse staff who experience racism in their workplace. By sharing common examples of micro-aggressions, participants can gain collective confidence to call these out.

As a theatre company we naturally incorporate elements of drama techniques, recreating real life scenarios drawn directly from our client organisations. By playing out things that have actually happened – or scenarios that are similar – it’s possible to identify the barriers and biases which have led to an unsatisfactory situation, and prevent it happening again. By holding a mirror up, we can show where the mistakes have been made, and help navigate towards the right course of action.

This participatory approach provides the opportunity for discussions and learning which would not be possible with traditional presentation style training. Sitting back and listening doesn’t work. 

How to make progress

So what should arts organisations wanting to address their unconscious bias do to make progress? 

  • Meaningful unconscious bias and diversity training with a third party is a good starting point. All, including Talawa, can provide that vital outside perspective, impartially holding the organisation accountable while mediating and guiding the process. This helps avoid echo chambers and no/slow progress.
  • Transparency and ongoing communication between all departments and stakeholders about the work being done is important. When staff are involved in in decision-making, ensure the process doesn’t put the onus on marginalised folks to speak up and potentially be in the firing line.
  • Action plans should be drawn up, agreed and implemented across the whole organisation, and commitments to short-, medium- and long-term outcomes embedded into business plans. 
  • Initiate change, don’t just talk about it! And don’t let it slip. Regular reviews with an independent committee or advisory group provide important opportunities to evaluate progress.
  • With new partnerships and projects, which will normally involve safeguarding and risk assessments, establish diversity standards too, which are equally important. The inclusion standards for the Oscars new are an example of this.
  • Finally, make sure that the organisation’s polices on diversity and racism are crystal clear and easily accessible, and that complaint procedures can lead to effective resolutions and accountability.

Whatever steps you take, be fearless about making what might feel like radical changes. And if you get something wrong, don’t panic. Put it right, learn from it and ensure it never happens again.

Roxan Kamali-Sarvestani is Community Engagement Producer and heads up the Unconscious Bias, Diversity and Anti-Racism training programme for Talawa Theatre Company.

Link to Author(s): 
Roxan Kamali-Sarvestani


This is a great article! Well done - in saying it so clearly. A must read for all those interested in promoting equality, equity and diversity in the cultural sector which should be ALL of us. Priti Paintal, c/o Diversity Arts Network