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Q&A with Dr Carla Houkamau, co-author of the book Rewire: the little book about bias

Anton Blank and Dr Carla Houkamau, authors of REWIRE: the little book about bias.

Our Indigenous Diversity Forum in May will focus on unconscious, or implicit, bias. Here are some answers to questions asked of us since we advertised the forum. It's also a taster of our book Rewire, which will feature at the event.

What is racism and what is bias?

Everyone has biases. Mostly they are implicit, which means the bias operates at a level below conscious awareness. For example, when we see someone from our own ethnic group our brains signal empathy and warmth. When we see someone from another group our brains signal more fear and less empathy.

Biases are triggered by stereotypes. We all hold stereotypes about gender, age and culture and we all tend to categorise people according to these stereotypes.

Racism, I would describe as coming from explicit (blatant) biases. Racism has been defined as an ideology of racial superiority, ie, thinking your group is better than others. Racism has behavioural elements, which are discriminatory and prejudicial towards other groups. 

Are racism and bias different, and if so how?

Implicit bias is related to racism because it underlies racism. People's biases cause explicitly negative thoughts and attitudes towards other groups – and this can cause racist behaviour.

The problem lies in the thin space between bias and action.

Racism comes from that place where people fail to recognise their inherent biases and, instead of trying to stop them, they act on them as if they were true.

This is where we need to do the work. 

Shouldn't we be calling racism out for what it is?

Yes. Definitely. Racism is a reality in New Zealand. There is no hiding from that – the evidence is everywhere. In fact some of my published academic papers show that really clearly.

Māori have always been the victims of racism in New Zealand … and the discussion about bias is not meant to detract from that or obscure it.

Implicit bias provides a starting point for understanding how racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination can be diminished or addressed generally in society. 

What can we do about our own biases?

The first thing is to be aware of them. Then:

  • Recognise the emotion or feeling: This is the gut reaction you have when you know you are stereotyping.
  • Identify the bias: What is this bias that my brain is trying to cover up?
  • Identify situations where your implicit biases impact your behaviour. Bias can vary according to stress levels and context. Do some situations trigger bias more than others?
  • Think about potential reframes: ask yourself, what can I do to reframe my stereotype?
  • Re-evaluate your view: Reframe.
  • Spend time with and make an effort to get to know people who have better attitudes than you.
  • Try to think in counter-stereotypical ways i.e. if you have negative views about one group try to pick out people who break the negative stereotype you have and focus on that.
  • Expose yourself to media that aims to break down prejudice and discrimination. One way to do this is via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Click here for an early bird registration or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to enquire about how to acquire a free ticket.

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