This is Part 3 of a 5-part series
Matt Pedler – Flinders University Counsellor and Clinical Psychologist
Welcome back to this important work! As protests about racial inequality have raged, it seems world events have permitted a very rare opportunity to look at ourselves and question in so many ways ‘Is this how we want to keep living?’ Such inner reflection about race is difficult. Below is the next section in an overall pathway to navigate such difficult terrain. In the 1st article we looked at how there appears to be some roadblocks in the way of repairing the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians. In the 2nd article we looked at how history ‘served up’ such roadblocks to us. This 3rd article will look at what keeps these roadblocks in place in the present; 1) being stuck in a ‘white bubble’ and 2) the pain of having this bubble burst which is then tempting to escape. If we can understand these roadblocks then we can begin to build on the protest movement and sustainably and consciously change the way we have been living (Spoiler alert! There are some activities at the end of the article to start taking some action).
What is this white bubble and why does it exist?
The ‘white bubble’ describes how we are saturated in our own people, culture, worldviews, conventions, media, language etc. We therefore tend to have very ethnocentric views and beliefs and see ourselves and our race as ‘normal’ rather than being one of the many races in the world, and that anyone else is seen as an ‘other’. The purpose of this bubble is to provide psychological safety, predictability, and automaticity. Essentially, humans tend to feel better when we are in environments where we have familiarity, certainty, and we don’t have to think too much.
How does the bubble affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviour?
When in this white bubble we tend to think: I am normal, I am egalitarian, the world is a just meritocracy, Aboriginal people and their struggles are not noticeable or worthy and are therefore unimportant and inferior. The emotions experienced by white people in this stage are characterised by comfort, security, power, status, and ease.
Some recent examples of ‘white bubble’ behaviour include; our Prime Minister believing that Australia (NSW included) doesn’t have a history of slavery, Rio Tinto thinking that the recent destruction of 46,000 year old sites (Juukan caves) was merely a miscommunication, and the rejection of the recommendations in The Statement From The Heart.
What are the costs of this bubble?
It is easy enough to see the costs for Aboriginal Australians if white people remain in the bubble and don’t recognise the gap in health and wellbeing. The costs for white people in this stage is that it takes energy to not see a truth that is staring you in the face, it erodes our underlying values and ethics, and we miss out on being enriched by another culture with precious knowledge and connection to each other and the place we all live in.
Wake-up moments – bursting the bubble
Psychologists refer to moments when our existing beliefs are suddenly and unavoidably challenged as ‘cognitive dissonance’. If the beliefs being challenged are of minor importance (such as refining our understandings in Uni topics) then the distress is also minor. If the beliefs being challenged are central to our self-esteem (I am a good person), racial identity (I am normal and don’t have a race) and national identities (Australia is good and fair) then the resultant distress will be profound and deeply upsetting. Events that burst the white bubble and create this dissonance directly highlight the gross mismatch between the everyday experiences of Aboriginal Australians and the way we think of ourselves as individuals, a racial group, and a nation. This bursting hurts.
A personal example
When I was a 22-year-old Uni student I first travelled to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands on a Uni trip. I was curious about Aboriginal culture and had a nagging sense of uncertainty about why things were so dysfunctional between white and Aboriginal Australians, but I had little understanding of the dynamic. We stayed at Yulara resort at Uluru and enjoyed the luxuries of this quite wealthy facility. We then visited a small Anangu community near the rock called Mutujulu. I couldn’t reconcile the poverty of Mutujulu, the riches of the resort, and the fact that Anangu people are traditional owners of Uluru. This mismatch was an absolute violation of my expectation that I/We/Australia is a fair place. It was a devastating realisation which affected me deeply and it sort of broke me at the time.
Alternatively, dissonance might be brought on by national events such as debate around how and when we celebrate Australia Day, or when AFL player Adam Goodes stood up against racial mistreatment in 2013, 2015, and ever since. Or from another place altogether, like the USA after the world watched George Floyd’s murder.
What is the purpose of this painful dissonance?
As with many major transitions, there is pain attached. Dissonance, if done well, can allow us to gradually manage the letting go of an unhealthy attachment to our ideas about who we are, who white people are, and who our nation is and instead build more adaptive beliefs about these things. It is a gradual process that is unlikely to be completed quickly or without distress.
How does this dissonance affect our thoughts, feelings, and behaviour?
Thoughts tend to be ‘all or nothing’ and there is an absence of balanced thinking.
I am a good person ————————————————————- I am a bad and racist person
White is normal, good and fair ———————————————– White is bad and racist
Aboriginal people are victims ————————————————- Aboriginal people are to blame
With this mixture of thinking comes a mixture of emotions, which can include; confusion, guilt, anger, shock, sadness, shame, and fear. Behaviour associated with dissonance is inconsistent and potentially reactive. The next article will explain more about the reactive ways people seek to immediately escape the discomfort of dissonance.
So how do we do dissonance well for healthy growth?
We have been in moments of collective dissonance before and have responded with both unity (e.g. the recent Black Lives Matter protests, the Sydney Reconciliation Bridge walk in 2000, the apology, and the 1967 referendum) and, at other times, division (Adam Goodes’ anti-racist advocacy, debate about Australia Day meaning, the Statement From the Heart recommendations). Despite some episodes of unity, evident long-term change in inequality has not been achieved. Perhaps, despite some ventures out of the bubble we eventually retreat back into its sanctuary… However, we have not before been in quite the same situation with Covid-19 and other world events making us collectively question ‘Is this how we really want to live?’
The next article explains the unhealthy forms of escapism from dissonance (how to not respond) and the final article will propose a pathway out the other side – toward anti-racism. In the meantime, below are some ideas to help people do dissonance in a healthy way so that we can start to grow. Stay tuned!
If you have feedback or questions please contact Counsellor Matt via firstname.lastname@example.org
- Bubble bursters
Here is a list of some sources of information about racial inequalities which could trigger dissonance. Try to not ‘jump in the deep end’ straight away. Try to read/expose yourself to something which prompts mild-moderate discomfort and then progress as this reduces slightly (this is a marathon and not a sprint).
- Massacre map
- Movies: The Australian Dream, The Final Quarter, In My Blood It Runs.
- Stolen generations – Movie – Rabbit-Proof Fence
- Slavery in Australia
- Frontier wars – Henry Reynolds’ books
- AIATSIS Language map
- Peggy McIntosh’s work on recognising white privilege
- Australia Day and NAIDOC Week History
- Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s doll experiments – see this moving Youtube video
- Dissonance hacks
- What are some other times in your life where you felt you have grown as a person? Did these come easy? What helped you then to stay with the discomfort?
- Thinking and behaving in racist ways does not make you or white culture inherently bad. The fact that this is distressing suggests that your ethics (and white cultural ethics) are sound, we just need to do better at aligning our realities with these ethics.
- It’s not your worth or values which are in question but rather your thought patterns and behaviour – which you can change.
- Its okay to feel uncomfortable, anger, shame, sadness etc, and uncertain about what to believe. Don’t rush these feelings, they have a job to do and will settle with time. Resist the temptation to immediately escape or make sense of them (the truth to complex issues is often a shade of grey).
- Take your time and look after yourself. Sometimes the best way to make sense of things is to try for a while, then take a break, and come back to it later (do it in chunks rather than one huge mouthful).
- Don’t do it alone! Talk to friends, teachers, mentors, about your thoughts and feelings. Find someone who seems more experienced in this area and talk regularly with them.
- Its okay to be imperfect as long as you are working at addressing these imperfections. If you become aware of some racist thoughts or behaviours in yourself, say “sorry, I realise this is not fair and I will have a think about how to improve”.
Figure 2. Anxiety levels with exposure to feared stimulus over time.