Challenging Prejudice in our Schools
In the current political climate there is no doubt that prejudice is driving the divide in our communities! This should not be tolerated, especially in our multicultural public schools. Teachers know that bigotry and intolerance is not a natural quality, our kids are not born with these characteristics, they learn them. This Newsletter looks at prejudice, its origins, the traps we fall into and the hidden dangers we all face especially when teaching in schools whose culture is different than our own.
The basic feature of prejudice is a judgemental attitude towards others based on their ‘group’. Usually, this is expressed as the ‘other’ belonging to a cohort we consider to be inferior. Conversely but not as frequently, there are situations where we see those ‘others’ as being better than us. The origin of this outlook, this ‘us and them’ mind-set is not inevitable, but it does have its beginnings in our evolutionary journey.
Between 50,000 to 100,000 years ago there was an explosion in the development of the human brain. This was the time our prefrontal lobes started to emerge allowing for an increased capacity for language, complex reasoning and forward planning. These skills helped keep each tribal group bonded. We became a social species, a development that required us to cultivate behaviours that kept the groups united.
The primary benefit of this group cohesion was to provide safety against animals, collecting of food, etc. continued until we were relatively secure in nature then a new threat emerged and this was the danger from other, competing tribes. During this phase of evolution groups developed the practice of ‘stealing’ food, land and sexual partners from neighbouring tribes. Now it became a matter of us finding safety in our group and those ‘others’ were a dangerous threat to us all! This enemy was now a genuine threat to our survival, so we quickly learned how identify who was ‘one of us’ and who ‘was not’, who was good and who was bad!
The emergent reliance on social cohesion resulted in neural alterations in the brain’s emerging limbic system. The subsequent functions, such as the ability to interpret emotions in others, attachment, those social skills that allowed us to identify the motives of others supported our attempts to survive and thrive. Successful cooperation led to an increase in the group’s productivity and social security. The ability to belong in our group depended on our compliance to the social norms and these needed to be learned.
This social association meant loyalty to our kinfolk which led to the rejection of other tribes. We learned to critically scrutinise others’ behaviours and reject any differences. The cognitive mechanics of this acrimony began to form between the prefrontal cortex, our considering brain and our amygdala, the part of the limbic system that initiated a fear response to any identified threat. When we detected difference in others ‘alarm bells’ sounded in our brains and we had to alleviate the resulting stress.
Research has shown that when people are thinking in a prejudicial manner the amygdala lights-up, it is activated. This associated effect was first observed in an experiment where white men in the US were shown a range of pictures of other faces. Their amygdala was more active when pictures of black, Afro-Americans appeared indicating even unconscious racism; this was an involuntary response. Further examination revealed the same anxious response has been shown when faces of other ethnic groups, aggressive women or even opposing team supporters; it is the instinctive reaction when we view someone we think as ‘other’.
The broad result is disturbing in that we view others, including everyone that is like the ‘other’ as being different from us and possessing the same menacing threat. For instance, if you as a white person see an aboriginal youth drunk in the streets, there is a tendency to think this is typical of all aboriginals. However, if you see a white man of a similar age, and condition you are less likely to conclude that was typical of all whites, after all they are ‘one of us’! We are quick to generalise about others, it is an unconscious reaction.
This prejudice has an impact on health. Whenever you feel discrimination towards another your stress levels become elevated because you see them as a threat and if it continues you can suffer all the ailments linked to excessive stress. The effect on the health of those who are the subject of this social rejection based on ‘kind’ is even more damaging. Rejection, a social assault results in the same parts of the brain ‘lighting up’ as happens when physically attacked! The clue to why prejudice is not unavoidable lies in the interaction of the frontal lobes, the emergence of which facilitated this prejudice and the amygdala, our protection against attack.
So, it would seem that prejudice is a natural phenomenon and perhaps, in the first instance it provided an evolutionary advantage but this is no longer the case.
On an individual basis the brain develops over time. The amygdala is the first to appear being active from birth. This dominates until about three when the hippocampus comes ‘on-line’ to give a reasoning to our environment. It has been shown that the amygdala and hippocampus do not instinctively respond to differences in race, gender or class. In fact, studies have shown that the most popular young children are those with a more diverse collection of friends. Any observation of young children playing in a multicultural school ground more than confirms this lack of prejudice in very young children.
However, the same study showed that these successful students, to remain popular as they matured dropped this inclination towards social diversity. This is a result of the pressure to belong to a peer group, so important to teens. It is the same drive to belong that underpins prejudice on a macro scale but also constructs the need to discriminate in a micro sense. This means, to belong to your clique at school you had to adopt their ‘virtues’ and reject the ‘imperfections’ of those in the out-group.
This is the period of the evolving teenage brain. From about age eleven the prefrontal lobes develop and part of this development is to over-ride the amygdala in all but the most dangerous situations. You don’t have time to think about what to do if a car comes hurtling towards you. The amygdala is there to initiate an almost instantaneous response and you jump out of the way. However, if you see someone different coming towards you, in a dark alley at night you do have time for the frontal lobes to assess the danger. The decision we make will depend on the memories, the things taught to us. This confirms that prejudice is a learned phenomenon, acquired from our parent, our media and our schools; it is real and it is damaging!
The good news is we can unlearn prejudice. We can ‘educate’ our frontal lobes by:
- Teaching about prejudice, in our history lessons social sciences and just straight out teaching empathy
- Exposing prejudicial behaviour – publicly ‘call it out’
- Creating laws that outlaw prejudice that causes harm
- Developing quota for positions of power.
There have been attempts to do this and with great success. France introduced laws twenty years ago that forced the membership of their parliament to be gender equal. A follow-up study revealed that the effectiveness of that parliament had significantly improved. There has been calls for such legislation in our society but this is resisted by obvious masculine prejudice!
The real driving factor for change is role models. This is seen in all endeavours, the arts, music, sport and politics. Perhaps, there has never been more powerful role models that challenge racism than Nelson Mandela and Barrack Obama, heroes of our modern political landscape. In our own nation the elevation of the football star Adam Goodes to Australian of the Year provides a similar symbol. Their rise marks a turning point for racism but they also provided a target for those who cling to their antiquated prejudices.
I agree with cultural commentator Waleed Aly who made the telling point in regards to Adam Goodes, he made the ‘mistake’ of being not only better in the sport than others, including the white players, he was strong enough to stand-up to the racism and call it out! The conclusion is we are tolerant of ‘the others’ as long as they don’t rise about their station, the homogenic prejudice to which we have assigned them!
The threat that is presented by these outstanding ‘others’ drives the racial backlash witnessed in the last days of the Trump Administration, these demonstrators such as the ‘Proud Boys’ were driven by the emotions of their brain that was responding to their ‘education’!
Why are we discussing this in our Newsletter? Remember, our focus is on students who have developed dysfunctional behaviours as a result of their childhood environment. The behaviour these children often display does not naturally encourage friendships with kids from successful families. They almost inevitably become a target for prejudice within the mainstream, they are rejected. However, these kids still have the powerful drive to belong and as a result are easily seduced into joining sinister alliances that reflect their qualities. They are driven to behave that way because of their life long rejection. The acceptance by their group means they now have the security of belonging. To complete the extension of their acceptance they naturally develop a strong prejudice against anyone who challenges the values of this new group. They become over represented in the associations that dismiss modern social values with claims of white supremacy and/or the rejection of refugees. Within their group they finally fit in, adopting the culture of the gang and rejecting that part of society that turn their backs on them.
If we want to eradicate this ugly side of modern society we should look at how or school system reflects our ‘values’. While ever we support elite private schools, religious and public selective schools which all reinforce social prejudice, we are creating an exclusive culture that must view public, comprehensive schools, that serve the lowest socio-economic areas as being inferior. We have the breeding ground of prejudice! This damaging state of affairs reflects our prejudicial parliament who encourage this difference through their financial support. Sadly, both major parties must take responsibility for this.