Cultural bias

During the socialisation process we learn about other cultures through:

  • direct contact with these groups
  • information and perceptions from other people
  • books, news, newspapers and other forms of mass media.

These experiences may develop into assumptions about other cultures or about a particular cultural group.  These assumptions may bias our perception of other cultures and so are known as cultural bias. Culturally biased assumptions fall into two categories:

  • General bias assumptions about people who are not from your own background. For example, ‘They’re not like us’.
  • Bias assumptions about a particular cultural group. For example, ‘Indians only eat curry’ or ‘Today’s youth have no respect’.

Both categories affect the quality of communication and may lead to inappropriate work practices. Most importantly, the individual differences existing within any cultural group make such assumptions irrelevant.

Consequences of culturally biased assumptions

Culturally-biased assumptions result in perceptions that impact on your objectivity when working with culturally diverse groups. The consequences are stigma, stereotyping and discrimination.

Stigma refers to negative labelling of a group based on certain attributes which may eventually generate a negative image to the public. For example, thirty years ago being a single mother generated a stigma. The AIDS virus brought about a stigma to the gay community. Today, despite community education, mental health still carries a stigma.

Stereotyping involves making assumptions about the characteristics of an individual which are based on a standard, simplistic characterisation of the culture (Cultural Awareness tool, 2003). People will often use stereotypes to describe a particular cultural group. These statements refer to behaviours or beliefs that may be a reaction to one particular individual rather than a whole subgroup. Stereotyping therefore only serves to limit a person’s understanding of a group of people.

Discrimination in a cultural context refers to showing prejudice towards a certain group. Most of the time, discrimination involves the unfair labelling and treatment of others and is based on both stigma and stereotyping.

These three consequences are the most common; you could no doubt add others to the list.  Within a workplace these negative consequences may lead to:

  • Resentment of clients and co-workers who come from different cultures. If a worker believed all boat people were ‘queue jumpers’, then the attitude toward a refugee client may be less compassionate than that of a worker who understands the trauma and grief experienced by refugees forced to flee their homeland.
  • Inadequate initial assessment interviews, where inaccurate or insufficient information is gathered because of some stereotypical beliefs about the client’s ability to understand or express their wishes or where the client’s behaviour is misinterpreted as normal or abnormal.
  • Failure to react appropriately to people in need. A most distressing example of false assumption occurred at a Brisbane bus stop in 2006. An Aboriginal university guest lecturer in a diabetic coma was ignored and left unattended for several hours by passengers and passers-by, who presumed that she may have been intoxicated.

Therefore, self-examination of your personal bias is essential in any communities and disability services organisation where you are trying to deliver culturally sensitive practice.

two people looking at a big sign of beware of wild stereotypes

Source: Tanner, Alexandra, Opening the Barriers to Cross-Cultural Counselling.

Reflective Journal activity

Examine personal bias: Reflect on assumptions you have made regarding a particular cultural or social group.

Section 2 reflective journal activities (Word Document 49KB)

Last modified: Thursday, 3 November 2016, 11:48 AM