Unpacking culture to break biases

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By Cara Peek, Yawuru/Bunuba woman, 2020 AgriFutures Rural Women’s Award National Winner, social innovator and co-founder of Saltwater Country.

Having travelled quite a bit, I have been surrounded by people of different cultures and socioeconomic statuses all facing different biases, as well as people lacking self-awareness in terms of their own biases. I believe that to create change, we need to work through those biases and cultural differences in an intelligent and conscious way.

If you look at the surface of who I am, I’m a female Indigenous entrepreneur and Native Title Lawyer that lives above the 26th parallel. One of the things I’ve always found is that people underestimate me. It could be the way that I dress, the way that I look or the way that I talk.

Some of the biases I face come from the way people think an Indigenous person should be, behave or look. How a woman should be. But what does an entrepreneur look like? What does a lawyer look like?

I used to work at a mine as a superintendent of a relatively decent sized team in community relations and engagement. On one occasion, the global auditors came to site to meet with the superintendent. They looked straight past me and asked one of my team members, “Where is the superintendent?” Of course, they were waiting for an older Anglo guy in high-vis. Instead, they got a short, Aboriginal woman in cowboy boots and a leather jacket.

In my work now, those biases often affect our ability to access funding and resources. We have to fight for that access, and the amount of work we have to put in to get the same result is tenfold in comparison to the quintessential controlling entity in this country – a white man.

I have also experienced bias at an Indigenous roundtable with senior Indigenous leaders from across the country years ago, I was sitting next to one of the Lore bosses from our community and people were surprised that I was there. I was the youngest person at the table, and I was female, and I had something to say.

But I keep pushing my way into the conversation. And I’m lucky enough to be able to do that because I come from a long line of strong women, I’m well educated, and I have a good personal, social and business life. This means I’m able to push the boundaries by being my authentic self, thanks to the work the people before me have done.

For me, bias is a two-way street. I have certain biases because of my culture and life experience, and I certainly come up against other people’s biases in business and in life. I think in pushing people to face their own biases, the first step is to unpack your own. Every thought you have is based on your culture – the culture at home, at work, with your family and friends, and the culture your ancestors ingrained in your DNA. We all bring our lived experiences with us when we judge situations and each other. It influences all of our interactions and reactions.

Once you’ve unpacked yourself, you can also gain a better understanding of others. Then you can start to meet them where they are to help them address their own biases and affect meaningful change.

For example, to give people an insight into what the destruction of Indigenous sacred sites is like, you can compare it to driving a front-end loader through the Vatican. People understand that. They can relate.

In the same vein, we have a useful opportunity playing out in the world right now. COVID is presenting a chance for people to understand what life is like for many Indigenous women. COVID has restricted people’s every day. We have experienced a loss of control by forces we don’t really know. Our livelihoods have been compromised. Our health has been at risk. And the real threat of death has loomed large. For Indigenous women, these things are an everyday occurrence. Until the pandemic, so many people have had the privilege of never having to think about them, but to Indigenous people, this feels like business as usual.

While it’s shocking to think that other people are living like this in our country all the time, it does present a rare opportunity to start to break down some of the biases we hold about each other.

I believe that to have any hope of breaking the bias, whatever form it takes, there needs to be greater understanding – collectively – of what other people are going through. COVID has given a glimpse of that. The work ahead of us all is to build on that understanding and find that common ground.

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