Let us stay away from prejudgments!

I am a 29-year-old woman from Iran.  As far as I remember, I have witnessed several evidences of “difference seeking” which I want to share with you, as well as my current believes about how to deal with this universal phenomenon, specifically its reflection in educational environments.

Back to Iran, there are barely international communities who live there for long time. While significant number of tourists visit Iranian heritage sites yearly, not many choose to stay as immigrants,  particularly in the past 40 years.  Well, this may bring about a picture of a quite uniform country with quite similar people of the same nation, skin color, culture and history. This is not really the case, though; in facts, driving from north to south and east to west, one meet totally different individuals. Due to modern urbanism,  many people have been moving to  big cities, such as Tehran the capital city of Iran, where suddenly they find new accents, lifestyles and looks.  And then the “difference seeking” engine starts generating prejudgments:  Turks are this, Kurds are that, Balochs are this, Arabs are that, blah blah blah.

During the past four years of my life in the US, I have experienced another level of living in a multicultural country. The appearance differences are substantially significant,  so that not only all Iranians are grouped in one cluster, but also many times people of our neighboring countries are added to our group, and we make a larger cluster called Middle Easterners! And, again, the same story repeats: Whites are this, Blacks are that, Asians are this, Browns are that, blah blah blah. This time, just the prejudgments are applied to larger groups of people with remarkable visual differences, but the essence of such statements are the same:

  • We have a backpack of features specific to each cluster. Simply, whenever we meet a person who looks like a member of that cluster, without having a enough knowledge about his/her background, we assign those feature to that person.
  • We feel excited to share our backpacks with fellow citizens, and make it updated!
  • After a while, we become even more expert and make small bags in our backpacks, e.g. eastern and western Europeans bags inside the Europeans bag.

Academic environments are of the most diverse places where local/international scholars get together. It is definitely very crucial to train students, faculties and staff of such environments to learn more about (1) the “hidden brain” which implicitly generates the above prejudgments, (2) techniques to terminate/dilute these thoughts, (3) polite yet frank dialogues to deal with discriminating conversations. What if we consider the whole community as one organ whose members endeavor to LEARN, and all speak in one language called SCIENCE? Is not it a more respectful, inclusive and effectual alternative?

18 Replies to “Let us stay away from prejudgments!”

  1. I really enjoy your backpack metaphor! What I have learned during my time in academia and from interacting with other cultures is that fear and discrimination come from a place of ignorance. The more we talk about our backgrounds and experiences with others, the less ignorant we will be. I hear more negative things about a person/culture from people that have never talked to them or tried to understand why they do something a certain way. I have realized this in myself and other people more recently and have chosen to challenge it by asking questions or researching the thing that people point out as a problem.

    1. That is a very smart point! Once we start communicating with people with different backgrounds, we will see how similar we are as opposed to the biased picture made by our ”hidden brain” which tends to be discriminating.

  2. This is a really good post. The backpack and cluster analogy you gave is really apt and relatable. I think people are so used to making prejudgements nowadays that it is too difficult for them to see other people as their “fellow humans”. I wish everyone could come to this kind of understanding where they could get past these prejudices and as you said, speak the language of SCIENCE.

    1. I hope so! As Deborah has mentioned in her comment, talking to people with different backgrounds about their cultures, challenges and lifestyles makes it possible for us to identify with them more easily.

  3. Hi Negin,

    I agree that your mini-backbacks/bags within backpacks analogy is a good one. It’s easy for people to do this, no matter their political and philosophical stance or country of origin. The more challenging thing, however, is to resist the temptation to lump people together like this and try to understand them as individuals with culture and contexts that makes them who they are. One way to facilitate this is to create space for these kinds of group discussions so that people have an opportunity to recognize and appreciate our differences and the ways that enriches a classroom environment.

    1. Hi Sara, that is a very good point! The most feasible solution to avoid such prejudgments is to talk to people, listen to their stories and try to identify with them prior to any implicit/explicit judgments.

  4. Great post-Negin! I really enjoyed reading your post because this is something we observe every day. I have lived in a diverse community for the past couple of years met so my people from so different backgrounds, now I do not prejudge people just by their appearance. But If you asked me 10 years ago, I could say I was on “autopilot” mood most of the time. It’s not that I have experienced anything bad, I think It’s (“our hidden brain”) just what we hear from others and what we see in the media. I agree with you it is important to educate people about the “hidden Brain” especially in the academic community. One thing is for students to get a better learning environment and the other thing is students in that environment will learn to respect each other without being bias over raise, colour or any other reason.

    1. Thanks Rathsara! Many of us from diverse communities have faced this challenge of switching back and forth from the “autopilot” to the “manual” mood. I think it is essential for us to realize such two moods exist, and then learn how to deal with them properly.

  5. Negin, what a wonderful post. I think you hit it right on the spot: we can only advance and address these prejudgments when we take time to discuss and engage as a community. By talking about our differences, we can acknowledge and enhance our setting in the academic realm and start to think of these differentiating characteristics as strengths.

    1. Communication is absolutely the most respectful way to learn from different cultures, identify with people from diverse backgrounds and finally acknowledge them as an individual humankind.

  6. Thank you for your post! I really appreciated it! I especially like your backpack comment, and its something I have given a lot of thought about. Why is it human nature to put people in boxes (backpacks)?

    I think it mostly relates to two things – 1) a mechanism to increase our ability to remember things about people and 2) a desire to make sense of the unknown. I think the first one is perfectly reasonable, and I do not imagine most people have an issue with its implications. It manifests itself in benign comparisons like which friends like tacos, or sports, and so on and so forth. I think the bigger issue is when people try to understand people we don’t by putting them into these groups, especially when the groups are extremely large (Middle Easterners or Americans, etc.) or that people are incorrectly categorized.

    1. Thanks for your elaborate comment.! You mentioned a subtle novel point related to the cognitive science of learning. While I am not an expert in this field, I think our brain naturally learns about unknowns by clustering them and extracting their features. I agree with you that this process is not harmful in general, but becomes totally absurd when applied for making prejudgments.

  7. Hi Negin, very nice metaphor using a backpack as what individuals carry from heir background and what they cannot change. I agree that it requires time and effort to mitigate the prejudgments in our decisions and communications. And I think you mentioned a clever point about our mutual language as “science”.

    1. Setareh joon, thanks for your comment. As we discussed before, such cultural improvements are significantly slow yet definitely rewarding. We need to patiently invest time and energy to communicate with each other to build a diverse community full of peace and respect.

  8. Hi Negin, I think you raise a valuable point that it is important to develop relationships outside of our “bags” or segments in order to diversify our own experiences and protect against implicit and explicit biases. How would you operationalize this in the classroom?

    1. Hi Ray! I think teachers have key roles to promote respectful communications by treating students equally, establishing teamwork projects and sharing personal stories with emphasis on inclusion and diversity.

  9. Thanks for the post. I really liked your backpack analogy as well. Specifically, I liked the part of your post where you said. “We have a backpack of features specific to each cluster. Simply, whenever we meet a person who looks like a member of that cluster, without having a enough knowledge about his/her background, we assign those feature to that person.” I feel that I am a assortment of converging cultures, ideas, and influences. I don’t assign myself specifically to one group or another. This is what make me, and every other person on earth a truly unique, individual with infinite, unmatched worth. Thanks again for the post.

    1. Andrew, you raised a very valid point that we are all unique with infinite, unmatched worth. This observation quickly invalidates the mechanism of clustering for judging people. Thanks!

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