By three years of age, children naturally become wary of strangers. This can be anyone who is unfamiliar – who is viewed as an "outsider." However, this predisposition is greater, if the people have more noticeable differences – people from different races, ethnic groups, religions or using different languages. When differences are more obvious, individuals are more likely to be classified as "them" rather than "us." The fear of the unfamiliar seems to be a biological predisposition. However, cultures dictate which of "them" will become the objects of prejudice.
Developmental psychologist Harold Fishbein (University of Cincinnati) is the author of an award-winning book, Peer Prejudice and Discrimination (Westview Press, 1996). He views human prejudice as evolving over thousands of generations. Ancient hunter-gatherer groups formed themselves into tribes. Each tribe shared a common land and developed a common language and culture. They were wary of people from other tribes. They were afraid that these outsiders might harm or kill them.
Today this harm can be translated into economic terms, which can lead to racial or ethnic conflict. For example, many white Americans are angry at affirmative action programs. They view these programs as giving minorities an unfair advantage in the job market. If giving jobs to "them" means fewer jobs for "us," this breeds prejudice.
Fishbein adds that, as humans, we have a deep-seated tendency to blindly accept authority. With the profusion of information we need to process, we tend to seek authority figures to help us understand what is happening. Often those authorities define "them" as evil or inferior.
Over time, social changes have led to greater equality for minority groups. This is partially because the subordinate groups persuasively pushed for their rights. However, they were also supported by some members of the majority.
Fishbein indicates that civil rights laws, affirmative action and school desegregation can correct discrimination – treating other groups ("them") unfairly. However, it doesn’t eliminate prejudice. As Fishbein says, "One cannot legislate changes in our hearts and souls."
However, he believes we can use our genetic predispositions to combat prejudices like racism. This can be done by compelling us to consider those perceived as "them" as part of "us." Innovative teaching approaches in elementary schools seem to be a good way to start this process.
Fishbein believes cooperative learning is a good method to promote this perceptual change. This is a teaching method in which children work in small groups rather than individually. According to a 1993 book published by the National Education Association (NEA), Cooperative Learning in the Elementary Classroom, there are many forms of cooperative learning. Essentially all involve the following components.
These activities contain two factors necessary to reduce prejudice – equal status and a common goal. Of course, all the children are of equal status as students. A common goal requires the efforts of all members to achieve that goal. When reached, a common goal can be shared among all the members. The reward for successfully completing the task is their common goal. By sharing the same status and the same goals, the children perceive each other as being more similar.
When children from different backgrounds work together to complete an assignment, they learn to understand and respect one another. They are more likely to encourage each other’s participation and listen to other’s ideas. When there are differences among them, they are more likely to disagree with respect rather than ridicule. These behaviors cut across racial and ethnic lines. Cooperative learning helps students to appreciate individual and cultural differences. In addition, it improves the academic performance of students and boosts their conflict-management skills.
Fishbein believes that our tendency to accept authority could help school-based programs to reduce prejudice. With cooperative principles applied in the classroom, teachers send the message that people from various groups can respect and work with each other. As school authorities promote this message, interdependence and tolerance of differences can become the standard. Children will be more likely to view dissimilar others as "us" – a part of humanity – rather than "them."
* Adapted from Scott Sleek’s "People’s racist attitudes can be unlearned," The APA Monitor, October, 1997, page 38.
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