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Who comes to mind when you hear “Uber driver”

Social psychology has found that unconscious bias is how we make everyday decisions and judgements within seconds. It tells us that we are all using stereotypes and rules of thumb to integrate more than a million pieces of information we are exposed to daily and we ‘may form attitudes without a person’s full awareness or control’ (Dovidio, Kawakami, and Gaertner 2002), usually resulting in positive and negative associations but not always supported factually. That is unconscious bias. 

Unconscious bias now forms part of Diversity and Inclusion training across many workplaces in Australia. But is unconscious bias training the answer to addressing workplace racism? The short answer is no, but it does give us insights.

  The benefits I have witnessed while providing Diversity and Inclusion training include those “aha” moments you see in people’s faces, as they realise, they too have a default. When I say “the live-in nanny has arrived, and they are waiting to be greeted in the foyer” – what comes to mind? You think of an image of that person and it’s nearly always a woman. Or if I say, “the Uber driver is outside waiting to pick you up”. You imagine the scene, it’s a man there, possibly a man of colour.

 When you give people the opportunity to think about it, they become aware that there is no gender or race ascribed to the term “live-in nanny” or “Uber driver”. But in those moments when they realise, they have an internal script written out for people, as if they are known to them, then it becomes clear how limiting that is.  

  Like when author Chimamanda Ngozi gave her TED talk on the danger of a single story, she said, “how to create a single story, is to show a people as one thing and as only one thing and that is what they become.” She further mentions how power dictates what stories are told, by whom and who is centred in the story. For example, when speaking about Australia, you hear people speak about Captain Cook and the arrival of the British to Australia as a starting point, erasing 65,000 years from the story of Australia. Or the Australian National Anthem, which now states that we are ‘one and free’. Erasing the facts that Indigenous Australians are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned than Non-Indigenous Australians, despite violent crime falling since the 1980s. Andrew Leigh blames, ‘stricter policing, tougher sentencing, more stringent bail’. He says a quarter of Aboriginal men of his generation will have spent time in prison when interviewed in October 2022. 

  Ngozi insists that telling a story that discloses ‘only negative portals of a person, is to flatten their experience and to overlook the many other stories that form people’. This is to say, you are stereotyping, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but they are incomplete. And there lies the danger of a single story. It’s dangerous because it is incomplete.

 I also think that unconscious bias training is incomplete. Shirly Anne Tate in her article, Whitelines and Institutional Racism: Hiding Behind Unconscious Bias says bias is not unconscious but is instead conscious and linked to Charles Mills’s (1997:40) ‘Racial Contract’, it diminishes white supremacy and maintains white innocence as a ‘will to forget’ institutional racism. Tate says that unconscious bias is the acceptable face of racism because it’s what the dominant culture feels comfortable using to describe itself. It also explains away all issues that arise in recruitment, evaluation, perception and through alleged ignorance. Tate references findings that normalizing unconscious bias exacerbates discrimination rather than challenges it.

Racism is not just about believing in the existence of biological ‘races’ (Yancy 2015).  We must interrogate whiteness,  its political, economic, social, imaginative, epistemic and affective boundaries and commit ourselves to de-legitimising those white normative practices, systems of thought and affective regimes that maintain and recycle anti-Black and People of Colour racism. Part of what keeps whiteness in place as legitimate is the ‘epistemologies of ignorance’ of racism (Mills 1997). Mill’s theories that white people mis-see themselves as ‘civilized superiors’ and non-whites as ‘inferior savages’ whilst producing a ‘collective amnesia’ about the past of Empire, colonialism and enslavement (Mills 2007).

So, what do we know about racism at work? We know that the Australian National University (ANU) undertook research in 2009 with over 4000 fake CVs in response to job advertisements in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney. They varied names only on the CVs and were able to illustrate discrimination. These results found, to get the same number of interviews as an applicant with an Anglo-Saxon name, a Chinese-named applicant must submit 68% more applications and a Middle Eastern-named applicant must submit 64% more applications. 

A 2018 study found that people from non-European backgrounds were most underrepresented in leadership positions in Australia (‘Leading for Change’, Australian Human Rights Commission and the University of Sydney; 2018). It also found that European Australians were equally represented proportionate to the population and Anglo-Celtic people, (mostly men) are overrepresented. 

Most women of colour experienced discrimination in the workplace according to the 2021 workplace survey by Women of Colour Australia. 60% of respondents said they experienced workplace discrimination and 57% of women of colour believed they had faced challenges in the workplace because they were women of colour.

Acts of racism or discrimination were manifested in the workplace by stereotyping women of colour, gaslighting the same women into doubting themselves and deliberately limiting opportunities to advance women of colour as found by the 2022 report Safer Workplace for Women of Colour by Mind-Tribes, CPSU Victoria and the University of Melbourne. 


  It is clear that the evidence is indisputable; racism in the workplace is a major issue. It can be theorised that unconscious bias training has proven insufficient for eliminating racism in the workplace. Given the many studies demonstrating racism at work remains an issue, we must collectively question “how ‘un’conscious can unconscious bias really be?


Sarah Ibrahim


Sarah Ibrahim is the Director of Central Lawyers, Founder and Executive Director of the Racial Justice Centre and a Workplace Facilitator and Speaker.