On the 4th of July, PEMA, CLAIRE, and JULES, attended a talk given by Yassmin Abdel-Magied, the engineer, writer, public speaker, and 2015 Queensland Young Australian of the Year, presented by the UWA Institute of Advanced Studies. At the end of her talk, Yassmin suggested that the way forward for empathy was conversation. In the spirit of that, the three decided to record their discussion about the ideas presented in the talk. The talk was called ‘Unconscious Bias: What is it and how can we deal with it?’

PEMA: Jules, you said earlier that you were worried Yassmin Abdel-Magied isn’t qualified to talk about the things she talks about. Do you still think that?

CLAIRE: Do you think that might be an unconscious bias?

JULES: I still think that… don’t get me wrong, I think unconscious bias is completely valid and a lot of the things she said were spot on. The social scientist at the end, as she mentioned, it’s not a new concept. [Editor’s note: the scientist was the chair for the talk, and she commended Yassmin’s depictions and definitions of those terms.] Is she qualified to talk about it? Then again, she didn’t purport to be an expert. I wonder if someone who did actually study it could give a more authoritative description.

PEMA: I see your point, but I think what she is doing, is that she knows that these aren’t new ideas exactly, but that they are quite new to the general public. Just because ‘the academy’ has been talking about an idea for twenty years doesn’t mean the public has an awareness of it. And what she’s doing is showing how those ideas relate to everyday experience. I was listening to a podcast, it was an episode of Invisibilia called ‘True You,’ and they had an American cop on the show, and he was talking about how he was required to go to a workshop on unconscious bias for his job, and he was really resistant, because he felt that, as he was black himself, he didn’t have that issue. But he found that he had been having those snap impressions without realising it just like the white police people. And he realised that he could teach those concepts well, because he could normalise the experience, because it is something that we all do in many situations for survival reasons, which is what Yassmin was saying, she was applying those concepts to her own life to make them more easily understandable.

JULES: I enjoyed it; I thought it was very good. Most of my issues with her are about things outside this talk, although, you know, I don’t think that she’s an expert in it.

CLAIRE: I’ve been thinking about this for a little while, the concept of privilege, and why people have such a problem with it. She was saying that people don’t like to hear that they have any unconscious bias, they say they don’t see colour or race, and how you don’t want to normalise racism, but it’s undeniable that society has influenced you in a certain way, that you’ve been moulded. You are going to do these things, and it’s not your fault to a certain extent. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t apologise for them, or try to correct your behaviour, but it does mean that if you’re more aware of these things that you’re more likely to do something about it. People are so afraid of it.

PEMA: They’re afraid to be called out. I feel like it’s easy, when you’re in the position of having to explain yourself, as she described and as certain people sitting at this table might have experienced, that it’s easy to get lazy about how you feel other people perceive you, because you’ve been trained to believe that people assume certain things about you because of how you look. And that’s a sort of bias; although it isn’t one that is harmful to that other person in the way that racial or gendered stereotyping is, though on a personal level it’s harmful for both parties.

CLAIRE: Something I find interesting, is that there is an unconscious bias when you look at her that I think that is going to be quite radical, socially and politically.

JULES: I would say that she is quite radical.

CLAIRE: But is she, though? She’s an engineer, who likes to drive race cars.

PEMA: Can you clarify what you mean by radical?

CLAIRE: I mean someone who is really on the fringes of their ideas. I’m thinking of feminism and politics.

JULES: I think people see her as similar to Milo Yiannopoulos, on the other end of politics. When in fact she isn’t that far on the left, really.

CLAIRE: I think that’s an unconscious bias, because people would look at her and be like oh wow, she’s a loud, brown woman who wears a headscarf and see that as radical already.

JULES: I thought when she said she was the first young Muslim woman to face criticism, that that is patently false and pretty offensive.

PEMA: What I understood her to be saying is that in Australia she is the first Muslim woman to come up publicly in our digital age, of our age group, living our lives online. She is receiving a specific type of vitriol because of that. She may not have articulated that well, but I think she’s right.

JULES: Didn’t you pick up a hint of self-heroism?

PEMA: I know what you mean, and I do think she was quite cocky. But I don’t think that’s a crime, and you have to have confidence to deal with the shit she deals with.

JULES: I am not saying she was arrogant, and anyway, she can be, she’s ridiculously well-spoken and she’s done a lot for a twenty-six year old. She doesn’t address class at all. She went to a private high school. She discusses all these race and gender issues but she doesn’t seem to discuss the fact that she’s from an affluent background, which to me is the baseline for every other issue. When she said that indigenous people can’t speak for themselves…

PEMA: She didn’t say that they can’t speak for themselves; she said that they shouldn’t have to speak alone. Which I agree with.

CLAIRE: It sounds a little nit-picky to me. It sounds a little like you’re splitting hairs, trying to bring her down a peg.

JULES: That’s fair. I just am not sure I trust young people talking about subjects that require a lot of expertise.

PEMA: I don’t agree with that. Young people may not have the same experience in the industry or in the field, but they do have the benefit of growing up necessarily more progressive than the generation above. I think that young people have broader concepts.

CLAIRE: She’s talking about her lived experience.

JULES: No, I think she’s talking about broad concepts.

PEMA: No, she’s applying broad concepts to her specific experience, which is a classic way to do both identity politics and the essay form, actually. To start with a macro view, zoom in, and then zoom out again. I think that people often don’t want to hear from young people, and I think that you are an age traitor.

JULES: Maybe I am biased against myself, because I am an idiot, and she’s obviously incredibly intelligent. I just want footnotes on these ideas.

PEMA: But she’s right when she says that she is a pioneering person in the field. Here in Australia, she is a pioneer in engineering because she is a brown-skinned Muslim woman. And that gives her, I think, the right to talk about concepts that affect her in that space. I liked that she talked about why as an engineer specifically she finds these social concepts interesting.

She lectures at schools often, and when you’re talking to people who don’t have a background on the topic, you can’t stand on a podium and talk in a lexicon that they don’t have. How do you bring concepts to the public? Well, you bring them by talking in a language that everyone understands.

JULES: But you also have to have a deeper understanding of those concepts yourself.

PEMA: But you don’t know what she reads. And anyway, those aren’t settled concepts. Unconscious bias is not something that has been finished and thrown on the table like, okay, we’re done with that. I think that the way that she spoke reflected that.

JULES: But I am just concerned that her ideas don’t come from much, they are just epithets.

PEMA: But they do come from much, they come from her life. I know that you think that money and class are at the root of privilege issues. I don’t agree with you. But neither of us can dismiss the other’s opinion, because neither of us is right about this, because it’s complicated. The answer is in the conversation.

[The three talked for twenty-five minutes more, mostly reiterating the same points over and over. CLAIRE left with her boyfriend at that point, because he had arrived to drive her home. JULES gave PEMA a lift back to her house, and they argued for the almost entire drive to Fremantle, before sliding into silence, and then gradually picking up a previous conversation about velvet dress slippers.]

Compiled by Pema Monaghan, art by Shannon Fae

This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 5 HOME

Yassmin Abdel Magied’s 2015 biography Yassmin’s Story is available in bookstores.