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Sheetal Deo: Beyond Unconscious Bias

Written by Anastasia Patralis

On 24 November 2021, Sheetal Deo from The Diversity Collective delivered a highly informative ‘Lunch and Learn’ to the Legally Yours community, focused on recognising and addressing unconscious biases. Implicit or unconscious bias is difficult to change, and training does not necessarily yield satisfactory improvements in diversity and inclusion.

This is why Sheetal and The Diversity Collective seek to facilitate learning and growth in a safe environment, without berating individuals for their personal beliefs or experiences.

The session first explained concepts of oppression, privilege, and intersectionality, as a basis to identify unconscious bias in society. Having provided this framework, the session proceeded to enlighten participants on how they can contribute to social change utilising their own personal strengths and identities.

Concepts of Oppression, Privilege & Intersectionality

Identifying Systems of Oppression

Oppression refers to a combination of prejudice or institutional power that regularly or severely discriminates against some groups and benefits other groups. Sheetal explains, “We are all assigned multiple social identities, whether we want them or not.” Further, within each social identity a hierarchy exists.

Members of the dominant group can grant benefits to members that they deem to be ‘normal’ or more like them. Conversely, they can limit opportunities given to those that they deem too different from them. Sheetal identified this phenomenon as ‘othering’, which occurs when differences are transformed into ‘otherness’ to create an ‘in-group’ and an ‘out-group’, thereby exacerbating oppression.

Oppression is based on an individual’s membership to a socially constructed subordinate identity group, such as race, class, and gender. In turn, these identity groups inform social structures, including colonialism, capitalism, and the patriarchy. These social structures then inform other systems and structures such as ableism, sexism, and classism.

While we want to recognise that oppression can occur in individual capacities, it is important to separate individuals from the system, as individuals are by-products of the system. Sheetal explains, for example, that ‘men’ may not be the problem, but the patriarchy, or it is not ‘white people’ that are individually the problem, but colonialism.

Systems of oppression are deeply embedded into the foundations of our upbringing, particularly our education.

What is Privilege?

Contrary to oppression, privilege confers power, resources, and rewards. However, similar

to oppression, privilege is derived from one’s group membership or social identity. It is not a result of anything anyone has done, or not done, as an individual.

Privilege does not negate the fact that someone has worked hard. Additionally, it is not the case that someone with privilege has all of the privileges and faces no oppression, and it is not the case that some individuals facing certain forms of oppression do not enjoy some privileges.

You should be aware of your privilege in different environments and pay attention to how that privilege manifests. If possible, you should leverage that privilege to amplify the voices of underrepresented (i.e., ‘pass the mic’).

Oppression and Privilege Matrix

Classifications of difference are socially constructed, and in this way, privilege and oppression are closely related. Inequality is an institutional problem and harmful to all.

To strive for equality, it is crucial to create a policy that is inclusive of the “most oppressed” person, having regard to oppression stemming from multiple social identities.

If you can create an environment that is inclusive for the most oppressed person, you will inherently create an inclusive environment for people who also belong to each of that person’s social identities, such as gender, race, and class.


Intersectionality is a framework through which we understand how a person’s social and political identities combine to create different modes of discrimination and privilege.

Intersectionality tries to explain the complex perspectives of someone who connects with different identities. These identities and experiences shape individuals’ life perspective and belief systems.

Common Responses and Resistance to Advancing Social Justice

Sheetal warns against some common misconceptions which may inadvertently hinder social justice.

  1. “I’m not racist. Everyone is equal”.

This approach argues that everyone should be treated as equal human beings, rather than racialized beings. However, this mindset minimises the impact that racial identity has, or may have, on the lives of certain individuals.

Racial discrimination and oppression still exist, but the view that everyone is equal may diminish the lived experiences of individuals of certain racial backgrounds and does not acknowledge the nuances of identity politics.

  1. “I don’t see colour.”

Similarly, this mindset ignores the extent to which race still shapes individuals’ life, chances, and opportunities. Even though racial inequality is not as overt or legally sanctioned as in the past, racial inequality still exists on an institutional level.

  1. We have gender parity/equality.

This mindset ignores the reality of continued gender inequality, but also does not acknowledge the needs of different genders, such as the need for pre-natal healthcare and lactation rooms.

The Diversity Collective’s Model for Identifying What You Can Do for Social Change

The Diversity Collective’s five-facet model for identifying what you can do for social change is as follows:

  1. What identities do you hold? (e.g., race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, religion/spirituality, age, socio-economic status)
  2. What brings you joy?
  3. What are your personal strengths?
  4. What needs to be done?
  5. What communities do you belong to?

Where there is overlap between these factors, this is what you can do for social change. Moreover, during this identification process, you should proactively learn about experiences outside of your own, while de-centring your own experience.

Do you need legal advice?

If you have a specific question or you’d like to let us know what you need help with, head to our Talk to a Lawyer search resource and find the right lawyer for your needs, or contact Sheetal Deo  directly via Sheetal’s Legally Yours Lawyer profile.

This Lunch and Learn featured post does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area.

If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practising lawyer in your jurisdiction.

No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Legally Yours Pty Ltd accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.