Can Discrimination be Unlearnt?

She had a poster on her wall that read, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ She saw a dark, bleeding man speaking with a foreign accent in the hospital in New Delhi and said, ‘I am sure this black man would have gotten into a fight. That’s what these people do!’

He didn’t say ‘no’ to the group of Muslim accountants who came in to grab a bite. He even served them with a smile. And then, he also abused them as soon as they paid their bill and left.

They all joined their hands and bowed down to the carriage carrying a cement idol of their goddess. They all stared and yelled at her, ‘Girls don’t need to be educated. All you need to know is how to cook, clean and keep your in-laws happy.’

In all the above cases, hatred won and humanity lost. Social psychology has many explanations for why people behave a certain way, why they simply accept their current way of thinking and why alternative or opposing views are infuriating and unacceptable to them. Each person’s mind works differently, and every individual is made up of different childhoods and experiences which culminate in their own unique perspective and beliefs. It is largely agreed that these factors contribute to acts of discrimination, prejudice and othering due to stereotyping. This is not only in the case of individual people but in the case of different nations and states as well.

In response to this statement by the World Value Survey – ‘It is an essential characteristic of democracy for women and men to have the same rights’, India scored a surprisingly high positive response, surpassing even the US, the liberal driving force of the world. And yet, the world assumes India is constantly trying to suppress her women.

Turning to theoretical frameworks might help us understand the roots of discrimination. The social identity bias perspective theory states that members are encouraged to defend their self-esteem and accomplish a positive and distinct social identity. This drive may result in discrimination, which is portrayed either as direct harm to other people or more commonly and subconsciously, as giving preferential treatment to the out-group, a phenomenon commonly referred to as in-group bias. This is a very common case in high schools where there are distinct groups which only consist of similar members – the jocks, the nerds, the popular kids – that have a similar social status and personality. For example, this theory states that jocks and geeks are polar opposites, and shouldn’t be mingling. Now, if the previously rejected geek is invited to join the group of boys,  with time his attitude would change due to the environment, companionship and according to the theory, because of being in-group with the jocks.

There are explicit and subtle ways to establish if an individual or groups of individuals discriminate or hold stereotypes. Overt ways are self-report measures that allow people to consciously declare their attitudes, incidents or particular target such as ethnic groups. Theoretically it is easy to assume that people would be honest with their responses and really will declare their dislike towards a group of entities, however, let us be honest, in the time where we hide our emotions behind, ‘LOL’ and a ‘winking emoticon’, people don’t step up to confess their hatred.

This is just one theory backed up by the science of social psychology and while there are hundreds more than have been established or are in course, what needs to be discussed is the extent to which the destructive art of discrimination and prejudice can be unlearnt.

Without a shadow of a doubt, the victims of discrimination, who are disadvantaged and treated differently based on the group or category of people they belong to face emotional and in many situations, physical scars which can’t be taken back. The multiplier effect can cause several generations to live in the shadows of the scars borne by their ancestors. When such a mark is left, is it possible to change oneself?

Numbers, logistics and experts suggest the change and the process of unlearning is possible and begins by accepting the faults and characteristics that need to be addressed.

Taapsi Kohli is a student at the University of Nottingham.