Unconscious Bias and Respectful Relationships

My workplace is currently undergoing a mental health awareness and respectful relationship overhaul. We as staff are taking all manner of tests to gauge our unconscious bias to better understand what it is and how it affects the judgements we make, without realising it. The tests have been amusing, and every time I gain a result with “you hold no discernible bias in this area” I am confused and somewhat surprised. I know I have biases. Maybe I’m jut more aware of them? Speaking with my coworkers about their biases has been eye opening too. The level of aggression coming from males when they’re told they have bias, and the amount of denial from the women is, to say the least, amusing and yet understandable. People don’t like being told they have preferences that can be seen as discrimination, especially if that is not the view they have of themselves.

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The point of these tests is not to judge anyone. It’s not to say they are racist, or ageist, or sexist. They’re to identify the underlying discrimination that we’ve been taught and have built up over the years without realising so we can identify them, name them, and deal with them moving forward. Not all discrimination is bad. There’s a reason we have bias and our brains categorise things. Safe vs Unsafe. Edible vs Inedible, Dangerous vs Non dangerous. Our experiences, our lifestyles, our culture, our peers all influence and help build these biases, and quite a lot of them keep us safe and functioning.

After we’d completed a few unconcious bias tests, we took our results with us to the training session. We shared some of our results and more than half of my colleagues had some kind of racial or ageist bias. There were a lot of upset people in that one room. Despite the heightened emotions, the training went well and I at the very least, got something out of it. Once the training was complete there was an interesting level of feedback. While the feedback was largely positive, it was incredible that over half the staff had the same feed back about one of the presenters: “I just had a lot of trouble understanding him.” At first I thought it was because he did speak quite fast and passionately about neuro-pathways, positive psychology, and used a lot of scientific and data based terms. I loved every second of it, but I could see where they would have struggled. But that wasn’t the case. Apparently it was “his accent”.

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Now, this shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. Mostly because the presenter was born and grew up in the same neck of the woods I did. We grew up literally a suburb over from each other in Western Sydney. He sounded western sydney-ish with a Melbourne accent lilt that we all develop after living in this city for a while. But here’s the clincher – he is not white. Of Sri Lankan heritage his skin colour automatically made him unintelligible to the people in the room who held unconscious racial bias. I’d have loved to have held that session blindfolded, still with the same three presenters, but none of my colleagues able to see any of the presenters as they were communicating. While I know that would present a whole new range of challenges and miscommunications, my hypothesis – they would understand all three of the presenters perfectly. There would be no accent tripping. Because the presenter simply didn’t have an accent other than a straight up Aussie one.

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Teaching respectful relationships has proven to be extremely confronting for a lot of people – paticularly the strong headed men in management positions and women who have never thought to question their position and place in relationships. But seeing them struggle with it is a good thing. It means people are questioning themselves and trying to learn. Unfortunately there have been some Nay-sayers throughout the process and it’s a constant uphill battle. But I think it’s a battle worth fighting. I think giving men the tools and the vocabulary to discuss their feelings is really important. I think creating a safe environment for men to discuss their problems without judgement is vital. I think women knowing how much power they hold in this sphere is important. I firmly believe that respectful relationships, across the board, between all humans, is something worth fighting for.

 

Until next time, stay silly (and be respectful!) xx


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