I have a degree in Education and Anthropology, from the University of Iowa in 1970. Not only did I study cultures for my Anthro major, but I was active in the university’s International Centre and was good friends with people from every continent. I came from a little rural community where the ethnic differences were between the Swedes, the Danes, and the Norwegians, so I was really open and curious, and my world was expanded greatly by my studies and friends.
Later, my husband and I were assigned to do participatory village development, shoulder to shoulder with village people in first Egypt, then Nigeria, then Mexican Texas. Our staff was always multi-cultural, and we lived and worked together.
In 1981, we were assigned to work with an Aboriginal Australian community in Western New South Wales. One day soon after we arrived, I was walking down the street, and an old man with very traditional Aboriginal Australian features was walking toward me. My gut suddenly wrenched with fear and revulsion. Then I was utterly shocked at my reaction. I had never had this kind of reaction to anyone’s looks before! This was not me and I was deeply ashamed.
So I started reflecting on what had happened, to try to figure out what was going on with me. I noted what I had seen, and noted my reaction. It took me several days to discern what memory or image in my brain had been triggered by the situation. Then it came to me. In my Anthropology textbook in the 60’s, there were pictures of “savages” and “primitive people”, and their depiction in the textbook looked exactly like traditional Aboriginal faces. So my reaction was caused by that hidden and forgotten association!
Once I identified where the reaction came from, I was freed from that unconscious association. My interpretation was that it was an unhelpful (maybe even evil) lesson, and I never had that reaction again. We went on to work shoulder to shoulder with all the people in the community and nearby town, both white and black, to share Aboriginal culture and heritage and build respect for each other.
Our biases often come from unconscious associations. Being consciously aware of the reflective level, the associations and memories that trigger reactions, allows us to interpret the meaning of these and ask if they are relevant. We are freed to make conscious interpretations and meaning, and follow that with resolve.