Ruth E. Walker
Bias is a tricky frame of mind. As writers, our biases deserve our attention because they affect how we write.
Our experiences — from infancy to adulthood — shape how we see the world and the other people who we interact with. Media and popular culture. Schoolyards. Neighbourhoods. Travel. It all reaches our senses and informs us about “the other.” And that drills down to how we write characters, create cultures and societies, and even what parts of the landscape we include in our settings.
But bias is learned. Sometimes, “the other” is not seen as such until something or someone tells us so. I used to think it was a natural human reaction to identify “the other” (the person who is not PLU: People Like Us.)
But I was wrong. That bias of identifying “the other”, turns out to be more socially constructed than a natural human reaction. I know this because it happened to me.
1978: A Hard Lesson
Forty years ago, I was a young bride newly moved to London, Ontario. I got a receptionist job at an employment agency. I started out handing out application forms and giving typing and aptitude tests to people looking for temporary or full time work. I’d usher them in for the interview with the professional interviewer.
Eventually, I started offering up insights and feedback to the professionals from my interactions with the applicants. In a couple of years, I was interviewing the inexperienced applicants. You know…those the professionals didn’t have time for. Persons with disabilities. Persons of colour. In short, the less-likely to be sent on for job assignments, the more likely they got me for an interview. Those days, it was a great example of the need for equity in employment.
One day, the professionals were away and I got to interview a “walk-in” keypunch operator. Back then, computers needed skilled keypunchers to input data. This young woman had taken all the courses. She completed the co-op training. She was dressed professionally and I enjoyed chatting with her. I sent her for an interview at one of the largest industries in London at the time.
The next day, the boss called me in to her office. The company wanted to hire my applicant. But my boss was distressed and angry. “Why on Earth did you send that woman to X company?” she demanded.
“Because she was qualified,” I answered, flustered.
“But she’s a [the woman’s last name],” my boss said. I wondered what the heck her last name had to do with anything, especially her job skills? And then my boss continued. “She’s a wahoo from the reservation. She’ll work long enough to collect unemployment and then quit.”
A wahoo? I’d never heard the term before. I didn’t understand why my boss was so annoyed. How could she know what would happen with this woman? Reservation? The light started to leak into my brain and I realized she meant the woman was from a First Nation. But I remained confused.
I came from the suburbs in Toronto. I didn’t know a darn thing about reservations. I’d never interacted with Indigenous Canadians, so there was no framed experience. I had simply interviewed a woman who qualified for a job.
Letting More Light In
The experience planted a seed in me about this idea of bias. I held onto this seed during my career in Human Resources. I took HR courses on equity, gender issues, discrimination. I wanted a better understanding of how to move past knee-jerk reaction and find the way to human-to-human connection.
I’ll admit to failing, more than once. But the point is, I hope, that I didn’t stop looking for the human instead of “the other”. And I bring that seed—and desire to connect human to human—to my life as a writer. I don’t want to write stereotypes. I don’t want to assume…I want to know about others.
My current work in progress is a science fiction set off-world among people who hold values and beliefs far different from my experiences. And those people are split into two distinct societies with opposing interests, religions and social/political structures. It’s a mess. And it’s a lot of fun to write because I get to explore the world of bias and misunderstanding.
Of course, it’s fiction so I can imagine all sorts of craziness. But even born out of my imagination, my fiction also carries some of my biases. However, here’s where the awareness comes in: I pull the rug out from under my own ideas of “perfection.” And it taught me things. I have learned that, for example, matriarchal societies are not necessarily all nurture and love. Indeed, given the right ingredients, any perfect world can fall apart in a matter of one or two generations.
I encourage you to explore your own biases in fiction. And give them some consideration in your life as well. It might open some doors you never knew were there, just waiting for you to come by.