How Londoner Smita Tharoor used lockdown in Delhi to trigger a brand-new trend

How Londoner Smita Tharoor used lockdown in Delhi to trigger a brand-new trend

Smita Tharoor is a London-based consultant, broadcaster and TedX speaker who conducts training sessions and workshops on the issue of unconscious bias, our deeply held notions that may at times influence our reactions adversely.

When the Founder of Tharoor Associates and Co-founder of Culturelytics found herself locked down in Delhi last year, with the normal work schedules of millions the world over completely shaken up due to the pandemic, she took the opportunity to explore a new landscape with the launch of her ‘Stories of Unconscious Bias’ podcast series of interviews with inspiring personalities. Since its launch in April 2020, the series is now in its third season and among Spotify’s top rung of offerings that has been heard across 38 countries.

Here, this dynamic professional tells ‘iGlobal’ more about the concept of unconscious bias, with some inspiration from the Indian epic ‘Mahabharata’, and how lockdown paved the way for a brand-new vista in her entrepreneurial journey.

How did the lockdown provide an impetus for this project?

I arrived in Delhi early March ostensibly on three weeks’ work. I remained in Delhi for almost five months. In April 2020, I was reading the paper and read an interview with actor Vidya Balan. She was talking about lockdown and lessons learned and, in the interview, she said she hated cooking because she always felt that cooking was demeaning and not part of being a successful woman. She said: ‘I always saw cooking as a symbol of domestication, but in the lockdown, it was like a new discovery.’

I don’t know Vidya Balan, have never met her but it got me thinking about why it is she had felt that way. What was in her upbringing that had influenced her. What were her stories that made her believe these “truths” about how women are perceived? She had unconsciously believed this and had fought going into the kitchen all her life. Now during lockdown, she realised that she could cook if she wanted and in actual fact, it did not demean her.

I reached out to her to ask if she would allow me to interview her, which I did and I decided to launch the podcast with her interview. There was no looking back after that.

How would you explain unconscious bias to a layperson and in your experience of producing this series, do you feel that we are all guilty of it unconsciously, so to speak?

If we look at the second word first it would help. The word bias just means a preference for or against a person, thing, place, situation etc. The word unconscious means that we don’t know we are holding these preferences. We can get unconscious biases in many ways. For example, our upbringing, our personal experiences; good bad and ugly.

There’s a lovely story that explains unconscious bias that most of us in India know. The one in the ‘Mahabharata’ about Bhima happening to meet a decrepit old monkey in his path. Bhima’s unconscious biases and self-perception of great strength automatically makes him assume that he can get rid of the old monkey with ease. And, of course, the monkey is none other than Hanuman.

I wouldn’t use the word guilty because there is no reason for us to feel guilty that we have unconscious biases. It is part of being human. It is when we are unfair to others without realising it that we should question why we jumped to those conclusions. All my speakers have reflected and have shared their life lessons on how they challenge their unconscious biases. It is so powerful yet humbling at the same time to hear their stories.

Can you highlight some of key guests and some nuggets from these conversations?

I don’t know where to begin! I’m in Season 3 so I have posted 28 interviews. Some of the interviewees are fairly well known, others are ordinary people like you and me. All of them are so honest when they share their stories. I certainly could not choose a key guest.

For example, Vidya Balan talks about her unconscious biases about marriage. She says: ‘I feel when an Indian girl gets married, she doesn't become a wife. She thinks she should become a mother to the man.”

Or Nandita Das, film actor and director who talks about colourism: ‘The minute I would do the role of an educated woman, an affluent person, I will immediately be told either by the director or the camera person or the makeup person that I know you don’t like to lighten your skin. But just for this, could you, because this is an educated open character’. You have to ask yourself, what kind of unconscious biases did the director have?

We have Neena Bhandari, journalist who talks about having poliomyelitis followed by a British photojournalist Giles Duley, who speaks about losing three limbs in a landmine in Afghanistan.

Aditya Atri, living in Delhi, talks about living with fourth-stage cancer and asks: ‘How should a cancer patient behave? Are you defined by your cancer?’

Conversely, I had British-born of Indian descent Bhasha Mukherjee talking about being Miss England alongside being an NHS doctor and being genuinely surprised that a brown-skinned woman could be crowned Miss England.

As I got locked down in Delhi with my brother, Shashi Tharoor, I decided to interview him as well. That was a bit of fun as I obviously know him and have stories about him that others don’t.

I launched Season 3 with William Dalrymple, historian, Indophile and resident of Delhi. He talks about colonisation and how the British, including his own ancestors, viewed the Indians. Then 80-year-old S.P. Rawal shares his story of Partition while 24-year-old Naira Manzoor talks of her experiences of growing up in Kashmir. Michelin star chef Suvir Saran, now living in Delhi, shares his experiences of living in New York. I asked storyteller Seema Anand to share the unconscious biases we all have around the ‘Kama Sutra’.

I have just interviewed Amish Tripathi who talks about unconscious biases around the idea of karma and dharma. I will post that in Season 4.

These are just very few of some amazing, inspirational interviews that I have had the privilege to have had.

Last month, the UK government decided to phase out its unconscious bias training across departments. What is your view on this move?

Whenever I am asked to deliver training for organisations, my first question is why. Unconscious Bias training should be offered for the right reasons not to tick a box.

I worry that organisations, including the UK government, run these training sessions to prove that they want to address discrimination. But unconscious bias is much more than discrimination. Unconscious Bias training should address our stories, how we have biases without realising it, how our narrative influences us in ways that we had not realised. It is about “me, myself and I”.

If we offer training to point fingers and suggest that many in the training session are discriminatory, they will get on the defensive and will learn nothing.

So please do phase out the training if this is the approach. Unconscious biases are far more nuanced than discriminatory headlines. By having open honest discussions, the attendees become more self-aware. Change can only occur if the person genuinely wants to change.

What are some of your future plans in this area, in the UK and in India?

The one plus from the pandemic is that I can sit in my home in London and continue to work in different parts of the world. My interviewees are from India, Australia, New Zealand, Trinidad, California, Ireland and the UK.

I recently worked with a foundation that has offices worldwide. I am the keynote speaker for a conference this month that covers participants worldwide. I will speak to Australia and Chicago from my home.

Since starting my own company Tharoor Associates in 2009, I have had the privilege of hearing some wonderful stories from different parts of the world. These stories were all shared in the context of understanding our unconscious bias. As I heard them, I realised that other than some obvious cultural differences, we all have very similar experiences. I wanted to share these stories with a wider audience, so I decided to have podcasts on the unconscious bias. The Podcast has done just that.

As long there are people who want to hear these stories and people who are willing to share their stories I will continue with the podcast. Post-Covid, I hope to spend the winter months in India and the rest in the UK but working with unconscious bias is not limited to geographies or time zones. It is about our humanity and that is what makes it so powerful and all encompassing.

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