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Monday, October 11, 2010

Discrimination, Stereotyping and Prejudice: Understanding Through Direct Experience

What should be of particular interest to readers is the thorny topic of DISCRIMINATION, STEREOTYPING AND PREJUDICE. These are arguably  the most destructive and harmful forms of human behaviour on this planet. The more we discuss, debate and explore them the better.  Dr Copley pioneered a unique discrimination workshop in 1990 which has resulted in many thousands of people having this experience. AAHA Learning will be presenting a TRUE DISCRIMINATION STORY and will present this in 6 short chapters - one chapter approximately every two weeks.


Every life experience whether we like it or not, has the potential to teach us something.  Very often our biggest lessons are learned from unexpected, stressful and painful experiences Great variations exist in what we may learn from painful experiences.  Adolf Hitler for example was bullied as a child and discriminated against as an adult.  His response was the genocide of 6 million Jews, the ultimate act of discrimination.  Nelson Mandela on the other hand suffered a lifetime of discrimination, 27 years of which were in prison and yet was able to demonstrate almost Christ-like forgiveness in his role as the South African President.  The fact that one man learnt to hate and the other learnt to forgive and that both models then served as lessons for millions of others, is a potent reminder of the complexity and mystery of life.

The discrimination lesson or exercise was first used by an American primary school teacher Jane Elliott in the 1960's.  Her blue/brown-eyed exercise in discrimination has become world famous receiving wide support from educationists, psychologists, psychiatrists and human rights activists.  A best selling training video "The eye of the storm" has and continues to be used in schools, churches, organisations and institutions throughout the world by people who are concerned about the devastating effects of prejudice and discrimination. Many people using this model do not have the confidence, courage and skills to create a holistic experience of discrimination and prefer to teach their lesson through group discussions, role plays and analyses of the video.  While this approach does heighten people's awareness and cognitive understanding it does little or nothing at the emotional, physical, social and spiritual levels.


After seeing the video in 1990 I designed with the help of Johan Greeff a clinical psychologist, a holistic experience of discrimination which by all accounts was the first of its kind to be used in the South African apartheid era.  The results we achieved were significant and very soon other facilitators began to use the exercise.

Two major organisations, The South African Defence Force and Old Mutual, used the exercise extensively for a number of years.  Lance Bloch, a Defence Force clinical psychologist who later became one of my associates received the prestigious FOYSA and TOYP awards, the latter being presented by President Mandela himself for his work on diversity.  A major part of his diversity workshops involved the discrimination exercise.

Susan Nel, a clinical psychologist from Old Mutual who was also one of my associates designed with colleagues a very successful discrimination experience called "Eye to Eye".  Many thousands of Old Mutual staff went through the experience over a 3 year period.  Although I have no scientific evidence to substantiate it I believe that the many discrimination workshops conducted in South Africa between 1990 and 1994 contributed at some level to the almost miraculous peaceful elections in 1994.

What there is little doubt about however is the fact that with a 50-year history of constitutionalised racial discrimination many millions of South Africans who passively by accepting apartheid or actively by practising it, perpetuated a system riddled with prejudice and discrimination.  Clearly there is a pressing need for these people and particularly White South Africans, to be sensitised to and inoculated against the devastating forms of discrimination in its many blatant and subtle variations and manifestations.


Since the first discrimination exercise in 1990 we have learnt a great deal on how to structure, conduct and debrief what is unquestionably a profound and emotionally charged experience. Although our presentations and methods have changed and evolved over time one thing has remained constant namely our SPIRIT OF INTENT.  Our objectives are to create a realistic short term, holistic experience of stereotyping, prejudice and discrimination which will provide highly relevant personal insights into :

-  Unconscious habitual stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination behaviours. 
-  How easily and quickly group divisions and separations can be created, intensified and accepted.
-  The individual and collective wounds and scars of different types of discrimination.
-  How stereotypes, traditions, ideologies and groupings give rise to prejudice, biases and discrimination.
-  Techniques that can be used to break the insidious and vicious prejudice/discrimination cycle.
-  Fostering kindness, fairness, compassion and empathy.
-  Managing conflict, resentment and anger.
-  Accepting and honouring diversity.

Note :  It is important that participating delegates are not told that they are going to have a very realistic experience of stereotyping and discrimination because this will significantly reduce the learning impact and understanding of this unique experience.
Using the discrimination exercise is always a gut wrenching experience for me because of the potential pain, hurt, stress and frustration which it may elicit in the short term. It is however a very conscious choice and carefully calculated risk I am prepared to take and accept. I am convinced that it provides a very effective and unforgettable anti-dote for what I consider to be the most damaging form of human behavior. There can be little doubt that many of the challenges facing human beings and South Africans in particular will be significantly reduced if we can heal the hurts of the past and eradicate current discriminatory practices based on differences in race, sex, class, age, religion, culture and many more.  Desmond Tutu made the statement “Without memory there is no healing and without forgiveness there is no future”. Seeking and finding peaceful solutions is a pressing demand not a casual choice. Valuing and nurturing human diversity is I believe the single most important need for both this country and our planet……this then is the spirit of our intent and my reason for continuing to present the discrimination experience for the past 20 years.

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