Racial Prejudice and Bias: A matter of degrees

Bias and prejudice is expressed in varying degrees across society, and that makes combatting it challenging as detection is often problematic even for those it is directed against.

Why is it that a salesperson treated you with condescension?

Why was your application to rent a home rejected even though you are an executive in a high-paying industry?

Why did that person in authority lose their temper with you when you did nothing and you have seen others behave or speak towards them in a truly marginal manner without invoking a response?

Why did this group of workers express extreme frustration during your presentation as a manager when other managers never experienced such an emotional response? And 

Why do you keep getting overlooked for promotion when other lesser experienced and skilled colleagues are moved ahead in their careers, sometimes even suggested as an effort to address workplace diversity?

These are all examples from the lived experience of members of my family or friends, or events we have personally witnessed.

In “Racism and Political Correctness” I stated that a major issue in Australia is the political correctness around calling out racist behaviour. It is obvious that a problem will never be dealt with if it is rarely identified let alone discussed.

Another critical issue is in identifying individual instances of racial prejudice, or even repetitive racial prejudice against one or a number of people, when plausible deniability exists.

As I said in “Quotas Are Necessary To Address Workplace Diversity” the insidious nature of prejudice in society, including in the workplace, is that it can be detected relatively easily at the aggregated top-level by under-representation and/other disparities in measurable parameters such as income, while granular detection – unless explicit – is extremely challenging.

How can a particular event be examined and it be determined to what degree that outcome is due to prejudice and what part was played by other factors that creep into the natural complexity of human interaction?

For example, those workers definitely showed a lower level of respect for your high position in the organisation, lower than ever expressed towards another in that same or similar position in recent corporate experience, but how much is that due to you having a different skin colour and cultural background to the majority, and how much was it due to the circumstances (including the general buildup in emotion across society and in the workplace in challenging times), and how much was it due to your communication skills generally and how you employed them there and then (dependent on your own emotional state at the time)? 

That’s part of the reason why bias and prejudice is so oppressive – the subject of the prejudice or bias will always naturally question why they were not “good enough” on this occasion – leading to questions such as:

What was it about my experience that led me to not be a contender for the role?

Did I not answer the interview questions well enough? or

In my presentation to staff did I appear less empathetic or was I unclear in my answers and that caused their frustration to boil over?

On the other hand, sometimes we learn about people who have reached very high level positions in influential organisations who have risen through the ranks while maintaining inappropriate views which translate to antisocial and destructive behaviours.

One recent example was a zoom presentation by Australian-expat Bill Michael, KPMG UK Chair, paid a 1.7 million pound annual salary, when he said:

Now is the time to say: do you care enough? Right, I don’t think this point of, what do you call it, unconscious bias? I think unconscious bias is complete crap, complete and utter crap for years, it really is. There is no such thing as unconscious bias, I don’t buy it. Because after every single unconscious bias training that has ever been done, nothing’s ever improved.

According to the article there were some in the audience who took exception to his comments – clearly as otherwise it would not have been publicised – but his were not mild or marginal comments, nor were they made in person to a small number of like-minded peers.

One wonders the volume of other inappropriate comments this senior executive has made on his long and “successful” career, to whom and to how many, within this organisation and others including amongst his privileged social circles, and what impact that has had on promulgating and embedding prejudice and bias within those cultures.

The subjectivity of interpreting comments, however, was even on display over the reporting of Mr. Michael’s expressed views when another writer in the left-wing ‘Guardian’ said:

[KPMG] regularly appears in lists of the best firms to work for, and boasts about its flexible working schemes. So it is possible that Michael was being held to a higher standard than many other bosses.

Perhaps this ‘Guardian’ writer is correct, perhaps managers in other organisations are not held to the same standard, on diversity and inclusion along with workplace flexibility, but if that is true it just proves the point. If this type of commentary is acceptable by a manager in any organisation then it is a sad indictment on the state of that workplace.

I do suspect, however, that there is a large element of truth to this writer’s inference, that strong scepticism towards the existence of subconscious bias and thus prejudice is commonplace in workplaces, especially in the major Anglophone countries, and I discussed elements around this, including the selection for sociopathy, in an early MacroEdgo article “The Authenticity Piece For Leadership Is Right In My Wheelhouse“.

The reality for most of the subjects of instances of bias and prejudice is that, unless the degree of behaviour exhibited by perpetrators makes it explicit, they will be unaware of the bias. The level of frequency they are the subject of bias then becomes a major factor in detecting the prejudice.

There comes a point where it becomes clear that outcomes are consistently unfair, and the likelihood that other factors, effected by the subject themself, have played a significant part in this repetitive behaviour is exceedingly low. While people who refute the existence of prejudice and bias often suggest that “would-be victims” are quick to blame others for their lack of success, in my experience the subjects of this behaviour are reluctant to accept that such unfairness would be perpetrated against them. It hurts them to acknowledge it because they want to believe that they are fully accepted and safe to be themself in the environment where they spend the most and best energy of their days.

At that point the victim has essentially eliminated all other potential causes for the repeated outcome – such as being passed over for employment opportunities or having their work performance rated harshly – but what can be done about it? Even if there is a channel to make a complaint, how can they prove repeated prejudice or bias when so much of that assessment is subjective?

Moreover, if proven somehow, what can be done retrospectively and restoratively to remedy all of those instances of prejudice which have impacted their career and income, and worse still their sense of value and contribution to the organisation and to broader society?

The complexities around this issue allows nongs like Mr. Michael, who have experienced privilege throughout their lives, including in the workplace, to have a long and influential career without any appreciation of the privilege they have enjoyed and the impacts that has had on others.

I would place this in a similar category to a manager telling staff – individually or in a group – that they ‘believe all lives matter’ as I discussed in “An Explanation Of Black Lives Matter“.

It is easy for many to dismiss these behaviours as rare or of little significance. They are neither, and the consequences of bias and prejudice is significant at the individual level. Moreover, across societies and economies it wastes significant amounts of valuable human capital. 

Of course bias and prejudice affects various groupings of people, from women to ethnic minorities to religions to sexual orientations or gender identity to age and more. As I explained in “Quotas Are Necessary To Address Workplace Diversity” some people will be subjected to multiple prejudices. Hereon I will concentrate specifically on racial prejudice, discussing indications of its existence in contemporary Australian society.

The Scanlon Society has conducted surveys on attitudes towards multiculturalism in Australia since 2007. Their surveys conducted in the second half of 2020 found that:

  • 84% agreed with the statement that “multiculturalism has been good for Australia”, 
  • 82-83% agreed that “immigrants improve Australian society by bringing new ideas and cultures”, 
  • 81-83% agreed that “immigrants are generally good for the economy”, and
  • 71% agreed that “accepting immigrants from many different countries makes Australia stronger”.

That is all extremely positive, but the survey also pointed at some deeper currents. Over one-third answered that Australia has been accepting too many immigrants (and that measure has remained above that level in recent years) and 60% agreed that “too many immigrants are not adopting Australian values”. 

Over half of the one-third who thought that Australia has been taking too many immigrants – i.e. around 20% or 1 in 5 of all those surveyed – agreed that “immigrants take jobs away”.

Clearly the survey suggests there is a large swathe of the Australian population with negative feelings towards migrants in society and in workplaces.

Moreover, that such a large proportion (60%) wanted migrants to work harder at assimilating is suggestive that even a significant proportion of the 84% who had positive views of multiculturalism (and agreed with the benefits of immigration) harboured some level of disapproval at recent migration. Likely some of this is due to earlier migrants and their families, e.g. post-WWII, believing that their migration was beneficial while harbouring feelings that more recent migration is not so positive.

In the most recently published Government data on migration (to 30 June 2019) 30% of all Australians were born overseas, and at the most recent census (in 2016) the proportion of migrants and their next generation born in Australia amounted to almost 50% of the population.

Prejudice and racism by earlier migrants, many of whom were themselves subjected to ethnicity-based bullying and prejudice and bias, is an issue rarely discussed in Australia but I believe it to be a significant factor from anecdotal observations.

In response to my posting on FaceBook of my explanation of Black Lives Matter to a long-time friend, which formed the basis of my MacroEdgo post, a conversation developed with a post-WWII migrant from central Europe who was defending the views supported by our mutual friend and was criticising the Black Lives Matter movement.

He had several concerns with BLM; the initial one that it was divisive. I made some initial points on FB and my post “The Lie Of Reverse Racism” was a more detailed response. He ultimately agreed with my points and complimented me for my writing.

What came next, however, was a rich learning experience for us both. He tapped into how he felt in those early years not being accepted into the broader Australian society in northern Queensland, and said “all my mates were indigenous growing up and we were ‘all in this together’!”.

Sadly he then retreated behind a blanket statement that BLM is a marxist movement because the website for one group stated those beliefs. 

I wondered aloud to him, privately, whether that might just be a convenient excuse, and I suggested that perhaps “the fear of being different, again, when you are now accepted into broader society, prevents you from speaking up about what you know, including from your own personal experience, within the community?”

Naturally sympathetic and appreciative of what he shared, though, I added “I have no idea how difficult that must have been, but I genuinely feel guilty that my ancestors may have played a role in making you feel unwelcome.”

It is a real shame when those who have personally experienced racism and prejudice do not speak up and teach us all, including their own descendants, about the dangers and personal consequences of it. While perhaps the long-lasting emotional consequences of being subjected to social exclusion and bullying and prejudice explain a reluctance to be conspicuous, it does not excuse becoming indifferent, or worse still, taking on those racist and prejudicial views and behaviours against others.

It seems to me that there is an element of thinking that “our migration was good for Australia and we integrated, but more recent migration has not been as good for Australia because these recent migrants are different and are not integrating”. Of course that was the common refrain of those objecting to earlier waves of migration.

Besides the inherent bias in those views, the prejudice and bias of Australians is highlighted by the contradiction visible within the wording of the survey questions. That is, if over 80% of people agreed that diversity leads to changes beneficial to society and to the economy, why would 60% of people want that diversity lost by assimilation to a homogenised pre-existing society?

To this point I have concentrated on what might be considered reasonably strong bias as a result of racial prejudice. To emphasise the varying degrees of bias I am going to discuss one example of how what might be considered more mild bias, not necessarily based on prejudice but more on ignorance or just plain lack of understanding or appreciation for difference, which can have serious impacts on the significant number of people it affects.

Like for a lot of people of Asian ancestry in Australia, experience from my wife’s family and friends has shown that many people do not naturally have a good appreciation of their age. Several times when approaching her 40s colleagues stated extreme surprise at the fact that my wife had two children which raised the question of exactly how old they thought she was.

A friend had a more remarkable experience. She was an academic also in her late 30s and during orientation week a workman on campus asked her “Are you lost young one?” indicating that he had confused her for a first year less than half her actual age. 

While at a personal level these professional women recognise the humour in these instances, they are also acutely aware that there are more serious consequences to these grossly erroneous assumptions.

Their natural small frame and skin tone confuses many in Australia as to their age. In the workplace a subconscious assessment of age and life experience will have consequences on subconscious perceptions relevant to relationship-building and functioning within workplaces.

Just like small men fight against instinctive reactions to their size, often resulting in suggestions they displayed behaviours consistent with a theorised inferiority complex often referred to as a “Napoleon complex” or “small man syndrome”, small younger-looking women have to battle a perception of cuteness and immaturity. And if they are in fact a strong personality in a small body, they are especially prone to being patronised and demeaned as being “feisty” by males and females alike. 

Moreover, in a society that highly prizes as attractive fit and youthful looks, insecure individuals may be prone to ill-feeling towards them. That may be exacerbated if the female prefers to present herself in a way which emphasises her femininity while still expressing professionalism. 

How a female chooses to present herself can draw strong emotional responses from others. It has no bearing on their performance or their ability to perform in the workplace, but that does not mean it does not affect perceptions of them which introduce biases affecting such assessments. Moreover, how people prefer to present themselves is deeply personal, and this article is a wonderful example of how this relates to prejudice against and personal power for young African-Australian women.

Undoubtedly difficult to manage, these factors can introduce biases which impact significant numbers of workers, especially around perceptions of their professional experience and maturity to take on higher roles, and so critically impedes workplaces, broader economies and societies from experiencing the full benefits from multiculturalism.

A few days ago I had an epiphany as I listened to my wife explain her earliest  experiences of racism to our youngest son. He was interviewing his mother for a school assignment on somebody he knew who has faced challenges in their life.

As she explained to our son that she did not have any concept of what was racism until she migrated to Australia when she was a little younger than he, I already knew all of the information. I knew that in her country of birth, Sri Lanka, as a child she found that Caucasians in the country were treated as if they were special. Perhaps that was emphasised in her household as her grandfather was a strong supporter of the British and had taken on much of the British culture in eating at a dining table with properly set cutlery, and so on. Sadly for him, his love for sharing his interest in Shakespeare and English literature with his grandchildren set them up ideally to move out from under his roof and emigrate.

(Please note I do not suggest that prejudice is absent in Sri Lankan society as it certainly does exist there between cultures and castes and more.)

As my wife discussed that it had never occurred to her that people in Australia would treat her differently, I realised that, all these years later, with all she has experienced, in many aspects she remains naive to what underlies racism.

In the past I explained in my writing why it is that Anglo-Celtic Australia truly understands the breadth, if not necessarily the depth, of racism and prejudice in our society. It is people like me that grew up frequently witnessing the hushed conversations or jokes in the street, often preceded by a quick glance around to see who is nearby, that I discussed in “The Lie of Reverse Racism“. It is a critical point of great relevance to this discussion which many still refuse to concede. (I do accept, however, that others might not have witnessed racist attitudes to quite the degree I did in northern Queensland*.)

After a shared life together over 30 years, this has been a watershed year for us. Several things have coalesced – the step up in civil rights actions, events and realisations of relevance to our family and friends as discussed above, and especially an apparent reduction in the willingness of my own parents to be tolerant of diversity (and by extension ours) – that have led to me being more open about what is the real nature of the racism and prejudice that I witnessed and participated in as a youth.

My epiphany was that partly out of shame, and partly out of loyalty to my parents as well as not wanting for my wife to feel hurt and less connected to them, I have been politically correct in not explaining to my wife the deeper core beliefs underlying racism. But I now realise that it is important that she understands exactly what this belief system is that has impacted her life in Australia so greatly, and will impact our children, and what are the widespread but less visible signs of it.

We recently discussed, for instance, how prejudiced people will argue that suspicion of strangers is “natural” and biologically hard-wired into animals including human beings. Along with a belief that non-Caucasian “races” are inferior (and there are historical “scientific” papers attempting to argue that point including by Darwin himself and even the “moral superpower” Swedes), racists and prejudiced people will justify their beliefs and actions by inferring that racism is natural. Consequently they believe, either consciously or subconsciously, that all attempts to counter racism – from their perception of a top-down imposition of “political correctness” through to explicit measures at progressing diversity and inclusion goals – are ultimately doomed to fail.

From my early life I heard it said that indigenous Australians – Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders – were lazy and not good employees, and that on the sporting field they lacked courage and grit (in my experience many Australians consider grit and steely determination the preserve of Caucasians). This seems constant no matter how many hard-fought premierships and State of Origins are won by diverse sporting teams! I also learned from others in my community to be suspicious and a bit fearful of people who looked and behaved differently – I recently recalled to my children how I was even anxious on my first trip outside of Australia as an adult, to Singapore of all places, when I was 25 and on my honeymoon.

These were the views and fears that I was taught in and by my community as a child and into my youth, but I learned differently when I entered a more diverse community beginning at university.

I learned that strangers do not stay strange for long when you have an open mind.

I also learned and experienced that an open mind is not dependent on the possession of a passport, or a university degree, but on an open heart. 

For this same reason the possession of a passport or degree does not guarantee an open mind.

So the question is how to open the minds of those who, like the highly paid Australian executive Bill Michael, have chosen to keep theirs closed?

Because the problem is systemic, so must be the answer. National anti-racism and anti-prejudice/anti-bias programs must encompass all aspects of life from early education, the workplace and into every dark and difficult-to-reach corner of our society.

Earlier I asked what can be done restoratively about all of those instances of bias and prejudice in workplaces. I partly answered that in one of my earliest articles on MacroEdgo “Quotas Are Necessary To Address Workplace Diversity“:

some times an applicant from the unfavoured group with less experience will be given a chance to prove themself in a position above someone from the favoured group with more experience. After all, some of that extra experience was gained at the expense of other individuals who did not really have equal opportunity. What is important is that when somebody is chosen to correct diversity that that person is authentic and of a high calibre, and is not necessarily somebody who shares more in common with the favoured group rather than the unfavoured group.

That may translate to giving multi-level promotions to and/or accelerating the development of talented and authentic leaders from minority subgroups. Without a culture change, however, such measures will be susceptible to undermining by antagonists, in many forms, because the need for the measures is not deeply appreciated and accepted. Herein lies another reason for why a perfect meritocracy is not ideal for a healthy society as argued by Prof. Sandel – because it would embed all of the advantage and disadvantage that exists.

All Mr. Michael’s comments prove is that a tremendous amount of work is required to address subconscious bias in workplaces and broader society, as well as how little effect the corporate training to this point has had especially if his employer KPMG is indeed one of the more advanced organisations.

What is needed is honesty over what is the cause of biases along with individual honesty over retained prejudicial attitudes.

To be effective, the aim of diversity and inclusion training must be to assist all to stand in the truth of their own individual degree of racism, prejudice and/or bias as well as their privilege.

That training needs to be deep, diverse and persistent because some of the most impactful biases are subtle and the degree to which they exist challenging to detect.

Now that is what we should all care about. Surely there are many more ‘Mr. Michaels’ in corporate Australia and elsewhere. It is to be hoped that diversity and inclusion training would reform their faulty perceptions, or at the very least create a culture which reinforces to all – no matter what their position – that expressing scepticism towards the existence of subconscious bias, which actually is a subconscious effort on their own part to perpetuate their privilege, is completely unacceptable and will be dealt with in the strongest terms. 

It is patent that Mr. Michael did not care nearly enough about combatting prejudice and bias. 

If KPMG are authentically progressive he will pay a justifiably heavy price.

And to demostrate how the answer to Mr. Michael’s rhetorrical question is obvious, infact children’s logic (often the most brilliantly direct), I leave it to the genius of Dr. Seuss from “The Lorax”:

 “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.

But that in itself is ironic since it is now accepted that the author of Dr. Seuss, Theodor Seuss Geisel, while ahead of his time on understanding environmental issues, did not show enough care himself over diversity and inclusion in some of his books.

*I realise that I will be challenged on this because the common refrain of many in northern Queensland is to reject the notion that racism is an issue there – instead of reeling off all of the instances of racism that I recall witnessing and later in life being offended by, and in all honesty they are too numerous, I will simply recount one particular interaction because it says a lot about the common culture (the attitude and the feeling of impunity with which highly offensive racist comments can be made – this person did not bother to check who was nearby). In my first professional position after completing my PhD I worked for the Queensland State Government and a very high level ranking member of staff (second in charge at the facility) said to me as we walked to the staff room together discussing a Category 5 cyclone out in the Pacific, in response to my concern for the poor people living near it, “Nah, nothing to worry about mate, there’s only coons in grass huts out there!” I was entirely taken aback, even with my upbringing, because I never expected anybody in a workplace to make such an offensive statement let alone somebody in such a high position. I was so shocked that I never responded, and was disappointed in myself, but I stayed ready whenever I spoke to him and did not have to wait long. I was in the photocopy room with two others, including a colleague whom completed his PhD with me, and the secretary came in to say that somebody from our former university department had called and wanted to know whether we had left any biological samples in the freezer. They were trying to ensure the material was not hazardous before discarding it. As the secretary left this same high level Government employee said “they should just suck it up into a syringe and inject it into some gooks, they’ve got enough of them out there now”. The other two were silent, but I was quick to say that he should not assume that others would agree with his vile and offensive comments and walked off, later informing my direct boss of the interaction. I should have made a formal complaint but did not out of concern for career implications.

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© Copyright Brett Edgerton 2021

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