Unconscious bias – how is it fuelled by the myth of egalitarianism in New Zealand
People seem to be talking more and more about bias lately. In fact it hit the news recently when New Zealand’s Police Commissioner Mike Bush admitted there is an “unconscious bias” against Maori and that officers must be aware of it to counter it (see http://home.nzcity.co.nz/news/article.aspx?id=217390). He went on to say staff have to acknowledge that every person has unconscious bias and learn how to deal with that so it is not applied to any demographic.
What is bias? It is simply an attitude towards something or someone – which is negative (I say that because I think the opposite to bias it “preference”). Unconscious bias is born from personal experiences, perceptions and attitudes that are not fully recognised by the person doing it. In other words it might be seen as a by-product of experience and stereotyping. One of the key things that make bias so dangerous is that it can be internalised – or accepted as being true. For example, if you tell a child enough times that they are not good enough – they can come to believe it.
Bias perpetuates the status quo – and there are no quick fixes… but one thing I think does not help is that idea that somehow New Zealand is fair and equal.
My favourite subject at Intermediate was “social studies”. We studied culture, societies, characteristics of different national values, political ideologies, also “rights” and “social justice”. I can remember distinctly the day my teacher taught us about Egalitarianism. Wow. Cool idea. Even cooler – I was told – New Zealand, apparently, is particularly egalitarian. I was told we know we are egalitarian because …we prefer to have a comprehensive social welfare system, we don’t tip because pay a decent living wage – oh and there’s no classes here. Not like in Britain where there are long standing hierarchies.
At the same time we studied other egalitarian countries – and the Netherlands cropped up as a comparison to Britain (with classes) and New Zealand (no classes). This year I have been fortunate enough to spend time in Bath and Tilburg (Netherlands) as part of my sabbatical. I don’t consider myself a social studies expert at all but it would be fair to say that New Zealand has a flatter social structure than Britain. I also started to think really carefully about what egalitarianism really meant – and how the belief that egalitarianism is a “real thing” can fuel unconscious bias.
Many of you would have heard that New Zealand is fair and equal – some will point out that John Key came from a state house, solo-mum family – “proving” anyone can succeed. However, the reality is – poverty (tends to) breed poverty – the Christchurch Longitudinal Study has shown that. We also need to just glance at census data, flick on RNZ Morning Report or open any newspaper to hear about how unequal New Zealand really is. I’ve lost count of how many times I have read about the growing underclass in NZ, our housing crisis and the widening wage gap. Child poverty has been in the news all year. Mainly because poverty tends to be concentrated in areas that middle-class New Zealanders never see. Looking back – I think my social studies teacher skipped over a few important points…. I also think we are kidding ourselves if we think we are still egalitarian. Massive income gaps and child poverty are not compatible with the idea that there should be an equal chance for all.
The myth of egalitarianism fuels unconscious biases – because people believe that if some groups are living in poverty – it’s because they may not aspire to success (I hear this one all the time). We need to move on from this view – where people believe that poverty is somehow a choice therefore if they are failing it is their own fault. At the least the police have admitted they have a bias problem – I’ll be interested to hear how they plan to address that – I also believe it is a topic well overdue in all areas of New Zealand society.