Where do I start? Since Wednesday night I have been asking myself this question and I still do not have an answer. At least it is by no means a perfect answer or even an answer at all. At this time it is like a puzzle so I plan on describing a few pieces and hopefully it will result in something meaningful in the end. Bear with me.
When I saw that the readings for this week included Claude Steele’s work I instantly consulted my teaching notes from a year ago and found that while teaching a Social Psychology lesson I had used one of Dr. Steele’s videos as a way to introduce the topic of Bias, Stereotype, Prejudice and Discrimination for my students. You can find it on YouTube here. Much of what he talks about in this video is summarizing what we read in the chapters from his book Whistling Vivaldi. A few things that stood out to me in Dr. Steele’s work were:
- The explanation of what makes a social identity important “if you have to deal with things in situations because you have the identity then that identity is likely to become very important to you…” (approx. 14 minutes in his talk)
- How “Identity Contingencies” become central to how one functions on a daily basis.
- “a question that makes you aware that you’ve got an identity” (approx. 16 minutes)
- Contingencies that threaten us become more important… caring makes you vulnerable (approx. 35 minutes)
I will deliberate on the third point here just to provide perspective. Somewhere along the path of life we all realize that we are individuals, that we are different from other people in a particular way. This could be anything like Dr. Steele explains. It could be gender, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, metal health status or ability to name a few but a differential status that makes a person vulnerable from the get-go is what is central to how we feel about it and how we function with it day in and day out. Growing up in a majorly male chauvinistic society in India I always knew as a female child that I would not be treated equally. It was an awareness that I did not argue with till later in life. My gender being a part of my identity and having lived with it for numerous years and being discriminated against for it never really came to me as a shock. Something else however came as a shock…eventually.
One particular situation that comes to mind happened in 2005. I was in U.K. based in a small town high up north neighboring the Scotland border. It was 4am on a crisp August morning and I was waiting to catch a bus to London so as to fly back home to India for good. Eventually another individual, with a similar situation I’m sure, came up to me and started making small talk – weather, sports and what not but the question that made me realize something about myself apart from what I already knew and that I had never thought of before was “what country are you from?” and soon after that came “so you are a Hindu, right?” No harm done just as long as they were questions based on curiosity. We all get curious. Just to add a little context to that situation though this was the time when U.K was in upheaval, upset and torn by the London Tube blasts that had unfortunately taken place not even a month ago. Not sure what the next question would have been or how this situation would have ended but the bus pulled up at that very time. As I boarded the bus I realized something I had never thought of before – I walk with every single one of my identities. Some are overt and some covert but still every single day, I enter situations in which other individuals have the opportunity to form an opinion about me even when they do not know my name or what kind of person I am.
I used Bias, Stereotype, Prejudice and Discrimination together in a sentence earlier as I have always arranged them in my mind on a continuum. Bias – showing an inclination or preference for one over the other. Stereotype – a generalization about a group of people or social category, usually incorrect or presumptuous in nature. Prejudice – an unjustified attitude towards an individual, usually a result of stereotyping. Discrimination – behavior or actions towards an individual, usually negative and usually a result of prejudiced ideas or stereotypes. So it makes sense if you arrange the four concepts on a continuum, right?! Now was it bias, stereotype, prejudice or discrimination that was exercised in the aforementioned story? Can you tell? Maybe it was one or maybe it was neither. I still cannot decide but it lends perspective on the fact that identity contingencies that fire up our fight or flight response become important.
Dr. Rick Hanson in his book with Dr. Richard Mendius called Buddha’s Brain explain simply that any incident that triggers fight or flight or the limbic System or the primitive brain as it is sometimes called will result in the prefrontal cortex or our thinking brain to shut down. Therefore, no matter what we know through our prefrontal cortex, the area that is responsible for higher level thinking and reasoning, we are not thinking with that part of the brain anymore. Everything at that time and in that moment is about survival. Thus, it would make complete sense if I were threatened or felt threatened due to one or two identity contingencies that those contingencies would then be extremely important to me and any time, any single time one of those identity contingencies were threatened, they would trigger a fight or flight response in me. How simple does that sound on a cognitive prefrontal cortex level. On the level or our primitive brain however, it sounds horrifying.
If I learned anything on my journey to becoming a counselor it was to treat every individual as…wait for it…an individual. Even while considering them in various roles and different social contexts one always has to try and understand the individual. This takes time. After listening to numerous stories, and mind you real, horrifying, heart wrenching life stories, and trying understand how it feels like to be in my client’s shoes, I can say that it has been the most humbling experience of my life. One has to make a deliberate shift from forming an opinion to forming an understanding. Carl Jung in his famous work The Undiscovered Self says:
“Judged scientifically, the individual is nothing but a unit which repeats itself ad infinitum and could just as well be designated with a letter of the alphabet. For understanding, on the other hand, it is just the unique individual human being who, when stripped of all those conformities and regularities so dear to the heart of the scientist, is the supreme and only real object of investigation.” (p. 10)
Stepping into the role a teacher then we have to decide – what is the real object of our investigation? If the object of our investigation is what inspires learning in our students then we would need to know who the student is. In order to know the student then, we would need to understand their identity contingencies. If we are neglecting to understand our student’s identity contingencies we are neglecting to understand the student and therefore in turn neglecting to understand what really inspires learning in our students.
Lastly, I know I am a dreamer, but even I know that a perfect world does not exist. I know that even an ideal world is difficult to create. Just like years ago I knew that in the Indian society a female child is a liability and as I mentioned before, would never be treated equally. Is it however, too much to dream that every individual could be, should be and has the right to be treated with equity?!