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Understanding Discrimination

Think about this: There are over 6 billion people on earth today. What do you have in common with these people? In what ways are you different or unique?

A. Similarities, Differences, and Social Groups

The earth's six billion humans share many similarities and differences. Everyone on earth must eat,, breathe, and drink to stay alive. Everyone has a family, a language, and a culture. All people have hopes, dreams, fears, and feelings of every kind imaginable.
Humans differ in many ways, too. Some of these differences are physical, such as skin color, hair texture, or sex. Others differences, such as language, customs, and beliefs, are learned.
These similarities and differences are the basis for social groups, a term to describe common categories people use to describe or identify themselves.

Age, gender, race, culture, and religion are some social groups you may be familiar with. Everyone is a member of some social groups, even if they don't always realize it.

Reflection for after Part A
1. What are the important social groups at your school? In your community? In your country?
2. What social groups do you consider yourself a member of?
3. What does if feel like when you're among people in your social group?
5. What does if feel like when you're among people who are not in your social group?

B. Prejudice

Social groups have long been a part of human history. Categorizing people into "us" and "them" helped humans develop tribes, clans, and other early social structures. Deciding who belonged and who didn't also led to conflicts and fighting.
"Us" and "them" thinking still continues. Like early humans, we tend to stick with people who are similar to us while avoiding people who are different. In many ways, this is understandable. It's often comfortable to be among people who are like us, and identifying by similar traits can provide a sense of belonging and community. But when we avoid others who are different, we tend not to learn about them. And when we don't really know what people are like, it's easy to make guesses, fill in the blanks, or make generalizations about "them" based on very limited knowledge. In short, we make judgments about others before we know the full story. These pre-judgments are called prejudices.
Prejudices often have two sides. If "they" are lazy and stupid, then "we" must be intelligent and hard-working. Whether it paints people favourably or not, prejudice is typically based on ignorance, misinformation, and/or and fear of differences.

Reflection for after Part B:
1. What kinds of differences are you uncomfortable around?
2. What do you think accounts for this discomfort?
3. What kinds of differences do you think you could learn more about?
4. How could you go about doing so?

C. Stereotypes

Prejudices are fueled by stereotypes, an exaggerated or distorted belief or image about a person or group. Stereotypes assume that everyone in a group the same characteristics, leading people to falsely believe that "they" are all alike. Even when the stereotype suggests positive traits (for example, that women are nurturing), everyone is hurt because these images leave no room for individual differences.
No one is born believing stereotypes -- they are learned from media, or parents, peers and many other sources. Social scientists believe that children begin to learn prejudices and stereotypes as early as two or three years old. Even though they don't fully understand what prejudice is, young children may repeat racial slurs or act out stereotypes they see in the media. For example, a group of girls may tell a boy that he can't play house because it's a girl's game.
As they are exposed to more stereotypes, young children tend to form attachments to their own group and develop negative attitudes about other groups. As these attitudes deepen over a person's lifetime, they are difficult to change. As they get older, people tend to see the things that support their views and disregard or ignore experiences that challenge them.

Reflection for after Part C.
1. How do stereotypes affect you?
2. How do stereotypes affect your school or community?
3. Where do you think these stereotypes come from?
4. Do you think these images are accurate? Why or why not?

D. Discrimination: When beliefs turn into actions

Discrimination is an action that treats people unfairly because of their membership in a particular social group. Discriminatory behaviours take many forms, but they all involve some form of exclusion or rejection. You may have witnessed individual acts of discrimination, such as a student who won't let people of a certain race sit with them at lunch. Often, these individual acts reflect a larger system of exclusion. Consider a school that won't let girls take the same classes as boys, or a business that doesn't hire people of certain ethnic backgrounds.

On a national level, discrimination can take the form of official laws and policies. The enslavement of Africans in the United States, the official domination of Blacks by Whites in South Africa, or Hitler's widespread extermination of Jews are some historic examples of systematic, legal discrimination. When discrimination becomes is part of a systematic use of power and is "just how things are," it is known as an "ism." Racism and sexism are a few "isms" you may be familiar with.

Reflection for after Part D
1. What can happen when we let biases and prejudice affect our actions toward others?
2. Have you ever not wanted to have someone as a friend because of where they live or what they look like?
3. Has anyone rejected or excluded you for similar reasons?
4. What do you think can be done to prevent or eliminate discrimination? What do you think you can do?

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