There are many voices that we don’t often privilege in churches or society. People we hear about but not from. First Australians, women, LGBT, recent immigrants, people living with a disability or mental illness – are commonly represented on the ‘voiceless’ list. I know we will all benefit from hearing these stories and experiences. Despite this, it still seems inappropriate for me to share because I don’t feel especially voiceless. I’m white, straight, Christian, tertiary qualified, in my thirties, and living in a city. All I see is my unearned privilege from the lucky hand dealt at birth – not barriers from being born female.
If I’m honest, I’d prefer to be able to categorise people and their experiences into the ‘systemically disadvantaged’ and ‘systemically advantaged’. However, my (and most other people’s) experiences are much more complicated. Without the stigma of gender and parenthood, I would no doubt hold a higher position and be further advanced in my career. But my degrees, ethnicity and experiences provide me with greater job security than the majority of Australia’s men. And in church settings, the benefits of coming from generations of ministers and missionaries, sits alongside the knowledge that I would be barred from holding certain positions in many churches, regardless of my contributions. All of those advantages and disadvantages swirl around and interact to explain my experiences.
It gets even more complicated when we move from defining and understanding disadvantage to consider how we can address issues of discrimination. I’m sure most people today are aware of implicit bias or unconscious bias and the wealth of research highlighting this phenomenon. The myriad of studies finding, for example, that:
- Male applicants were seen as more competent, hireable, and deserving of a higher salary than identical female applicants;
- Identical injuries were rated as less painful by health professionals when experienced by a black person rather than a white person; and,
- Women were interrupted more than men in staged conversations.
The implicit biases in gender and race are well documented. But the thing that struck me when reading these studies was that the race and gender of the participants didn’t impact the results. Female managers also rated the resumés of female applicants lower, black people underrated the pain of injuries of other black people, and women were also more likely to interrupt other women than men.
The evidence would suggest that this isn’t an issue of good versus evil, black versus white, men versus women, or the discriminating against the discriminated. We are all in this mess together. We are all the ‘us’ and the ‘them’.
Which is an awkward position to hold, because I want the problem to be ‘them’ and ‘us’. By ‘us’ I mean the people who aren’t xenophobic or misogynistic. Whereas ‘them’ are those people over there, who aren’t as “woke” as me. I want it to be binary. Because if it’s binary, I can just blame and rail against the church, the patriarchy, or the white hegemony, and then respond with condescension or pity to the oppressed. Neither response acknowledges my part and responsibility in the system that maintains disadvantage.
The issue of implicit bias isn’t going anywhere because we need our unconscious processing to handle the bulk of our functioning. Such processing takes care of the physical function of driving so that we can think about directions. It allows us to see the road as a background so that we can respond to new information such as an animal running in front of the car. Our brains are always going to form patterns and ‘short cuts’ and apply these presumptions to other situations to give us space to process and learn new information.
As much as I hate to admit it, I’m not going to progress beyond unconscious bias. Even though I like to see myself as egalitarian, or at least progressed beyond or above certain prejudices, I’m not free from implicit or unconscious bias. And unfortunately, I have significant evidence of that. I remember having a conversation about my work at a church-type event recently, at which I mentioned a statistic about child mental illness (information I’ve dealt with on a daily basis over the last decade). The immediate response I received from the male I was speaking with was, “That can’t possibly be true!” Moments later my husband entered the conversation and quoted the same statistic, but this time it was met with, “Wow! That is sad!”. Unquestioned acceptance. My husband, who (though he is brilliant) is in an entirely different industry, only knew this fact because I had told him. Frustrating, right?! But the next day, when I was meeting a new female psychologist wearing more make-up than me, that didn’t stop me from instinctively thinking, “She mustn’t be very smart to need to dress like that!” Or several years ago, while I was running an award-winning wellbeing program for Indigenous young people, it didn’t stop me from responding to a young Aboriginal man at a train station, as he came to ask me the time, that “No I don’t have any change.”
None of my progressivism, perceived egalitarianism, or knowledge of the studies mentioned above saved me from my thoughts and actions. Thoughts and actions which endorse and maintain the systems that keep people voiceless, disempowered, and disadvantaged – even when it’s my disadvantage that becomes entrenched.
What can we do?
The best place to start is humility. We all fall short. We are not done on this issue. We need to admit that, although we are kind, caring, and intelligent human beings who would never try to harm anyone on purpose, our minds may still betray us. It sounds like a small action, but it is incredibly powerful to admit that we might be wrong. It frees us from the need to justify our impulses – so we can start looking at changing our responses (and therefore the systems that entrench disadvantage).
We need to learn how to question our immediate responses – to take captive every thought. We need to practice holding ourselves accountable to the thoughts and beliefs that are guiding us and ask questions to which we might not like the answers. Do we find ourselves listening harder to some individuals than others? Do we instinctively presume that we have the most valuable contribution to make? Or, conversely, do we suppose that based on our age, race, education, experiences, sexuality or gender, that our thoughts and opinions are less valuable?
The reality is that by humbly and honestly challenging these parts of our human nature, we begin to dismantle the unconscious systems and invisible barriers that are entrenching disadvantage.
Because we are all ‘us’ and ‘them’.
Annual Reviews of the State of the Science of Implicit Bias: http://kirwaninstitute.osu.edu/research/understanding-implicit-bias/
Mandy is passionate about applying evidence-based approaches to reducing inequality – at individual, community and government levels. Mandy works as a psychologist with children and adolescent survivors of child abuse, and as a researcher in the field of First Australian suicide prevention.