The Inland See

Have you ever wondered about your subconscious and what it tells you about people or situations? As I said to a friend today, I am conscious that if I were alone in a car-park, I know that I would irrationally feel much safer if a man appeared wearing a tuxedo than if a man appeared wearing a hoodie or sporting many tattoos. I would know it was irrational but it wouldn’t change my feeling about it. But what other irrational biases do we have?

If you have read previous blogs, you will know that in one I mentioned a podcast called “Why Smart People do Stupid Things” (you can read that blog here).  Within that Podcast, there was talk about unconscious bias.  This must’ve been stewing in my brain all week so today I decided to Google for a podcast about unconscious bias.  Probably unsurprisingly, such a thing wasn’t hard to find. 

Through listening to David Dylan Thomas, I discovered that there are online tests that you can do to ascertain “implicit associations” which is similar. Obviously they can only test specific associations which are well known to trigger bias. The tests I chose to do are run by Harvard University. You can do them too at this website: diversity australia. The website lays things out very carefully. It even warns you that you might not like what you find out about yourself.

I did a gender test and a race test (specifically Aboriginal Australian vs White Australian).

I did the gender test first because I was more comfortable with it. It was about whether you associate men more with science and women more with humanities.  I wasn’t terribly surprised to discover that I am strongly biased in this way. Throughout school I failed to enjoy science, even although I thought I wanted to become a vet. Every year I would vow to work harder and like science better. Every year for four years with four different teachers, I failed in that goal. By year eleven I gave up and I did no science in senior high school. But since leaving school I have been exposed to science through friends, work and the media, and I find it both fascinating and enlightening.

I am a female and my own bias doesn’t bother me too much although it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t question it. (In fact just this year, I have begun to feel that I’m not nearly as much of a feminist as I ought to be. But maybe that’s another blog entry.) So… why am I biased? I mean, just because I have a personal preference doesn’t mean I should expect all women to be like me. My brothers both were very science-oriented at school and my husband is an engineer through and through. My father did teaching first and then switched to science, where my mother did humanities with a teaching scholarship. So in my narrow little world, the pattern was there. It’s all very topical, too. I am very conscious that such a bias is common and while I don’t like it, I don’t fight it either. I guess maybe I’m quite passive about it and that translates into accepting what society implies.

The race test was much more nerve-wracking. If there’s any label I never want pinned on me, it’s “Racist”. But the test is not intended to pin you with any label. It tests which race you more strongly associate ideas of good and bad with. On a conscious level, I would always say that I think white people have been far more evil than any other race. That is absolutely genuine. I think we Caucasians have so much to answer for. White people are associated with wealth which in turn links us to education, industrialization, colonialism, privilege, consumerism, exploitation, waste and climate change. It’s not a great list, on the whole.

But my test showed that I do have a slight leaning towards associating white people more with good and hence Aboriginal people more with bad.


My only thoughts are:

a) I grew up either overseas or in an extremely white part of Sydney. I don’t think I ever even met an Aborigine until I was 19. The history we learned at school was very white. Until I had an Aboriginal classmate at Uni, I was completely oblivious to the fact that aborigines didn’t even get the vote until 1962. I was shocked and appalled.

b) In 2002, my brother and I drove down through central Australia from Darwin to Melbourne. We did a little diversion out to Wolfe Creek Crater and came back east along the Tanami Track. The Tanami Track is 1000+ kilometers of dirt “road” with very little to punctuate it and only two fuel stops. One of those stops is at Yuendumu. We did the track in one day and by the time we got to Yuendumu, I was feeling like I needed a treat. I said to my brother “Can I get an ice cream in Yuendumu?” So he pulled into the little settlement and found a petrol station. The shop was filled with Aboriginal women. They were all talking very loudly in their own language and I couldn’t tell if they were happy or angry. I didn’t even have the courage to go in, I felt so out of place. My brother laughed at me, said nothing, and drove on.

So the only reasons I can think of for my unconscious bias are lack of exposure, poor education and remembered discomfort. I guess I’m glad that it was only a “slight” bias, rather than a “strong” one in this case.

That’s what I learned. I think one way I will deal with this is to read Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe. My parents-in-law have been talking about it a lot and I think it would teach me a lot that history at school completely missed.

I decided to publish these hard and ugly facts about myself in an attempt to learn from them and maybe to encourage others to discover their own inner surprises.

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