Stereotypes, prejudice & discrimination

Whether we are talking about racism, sexism, discrimination against disabled people, gay men and lesbians, trans people,  travellers, asylum seekers – at the centre lies prejudice and the impact this has on the way we behave towards certain people. We may like to think that we are fair minded and are not prejudiced and maybe, often, this is true. What is important, though, is that we think about our own assumptions and stereotypes and the effect these may have on our behaviour; whether we pre-judge people before meeting them (if we ever meet them at all) or make our mind up about something before we have any personal experience of it.

Our judgements may be based on what we have heard or what someone else has told us. It might be that we know bits and pieces about people or particular groups, and stereotypes may help us to fill in the gaps.

Stereotypes tend to arise where we believe that just because someone is a member of a particular visible group, they must (because of that fact) share particular traits which we think are characteristic of that group and this can lead to certain labels. For example, people are labelled as sharing certain characteristics – weak, lazy, dishonest, shifty, camp, stupid.  In the context of equality and social justice, it is these negative pre-judgements and labels that are the pressing issue. Very often the basis for prejudice is an attribute or characteristic that the person cannot change e.g. skin colour, disability, accent etc. (Have a look back at the Diversity Wheel)

Developing the capacity for reflective thinking* can begin to uncover prejudices that may lie hidden, even from ourselves; covered up with layers of justification and rationalisation we have created over the years. Exposing our prejudices even to ourselves can be uncomfortable. Even if we think they are under control, these attitudes are likely to leak out at some point and affect our behaviour; our underlying attitudes, opinions and beliefs will show through verbally, and more importantly, non-verbally in terms of our body language, especially when we are under pressure. You know if someone feels something negative about you, even if they are smiling politely!

Discrimination grows out of prejudice and is about the way we act out our prejudices. When we act more favourably towards one group of people than another and that favouritism is based on prejudice, then we may be said to have discriminated.  Whilst this is serious on an individual level, it becomes even more so when it is what is called ‘institutionalised’ discrimination that is embedded in the culture of an organisation.

How it all happens is complex and over the years there have been various ways of explaining how discrimination and unequal opportunities arise, taking into consideration the amount of power* that people have in any given situation.

* you can find out more about Reflective Practice from our ‘Reflection on the tin’ blog and we talk more about power in the changes core (soon to be published).

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