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Changing Perceptions October 1, 2012

Posted by Sneha Khilay - Blue Tulip Training in Uncategorized.

During a regular visit to my local building society, a staff member – Stacey – who had always treated me with the utmost respect and courtesy asked if I had conducted a presentation to a class of 10 year olds some time ago.  I responded that I had.

I recalled that I told the children about the meaning of Diwali (the Indian festival of light) and had taken saris for the girls to try on as well as bindis (small stick on jewels) for the girls to stick on their foreheads.  I had also explained how families celebrate Diwali and distributed Indian sweets to the whole class whilst explaining their symbolism.

Stacey explained that, although it was over ten years ago, she recalls the presentation in detail and told me that it was one of her favourite and most memorable days at school.  Stacey added that by being exposed to this different perspective, it changed her perception of different cultures / ways of living.  Her behaviour changed as a direct result of my presentation, to put it simply she recognises that everyone she meets has an interesting story to share and she treats them accordingly.

By contrast, a white colleague candidly shared that her 80 year old aunt is so racist that, when handed change by a Black shop assistant, she insists on them putting the change on the counter (rather than into her hand) in case they touch her.  My colleague, who is genuinely committed to promoting diversity, explained that not only does she find her aunt’s behaviour embarrassing, she continues to be frustrated that, despite repeatedly explaining the concept of ‘respect for differences’ to her aunt in a way that she will understand, she nonetheless continues to behave in this blatantly discriminatory manner. My colleague feels horribly self conscious when she is shopping with her aunt as, at times, shop assistants look at her and seem to assume that she supports her aunt’s behaviour when this is very far from the truth.

You can argue that someone who was 10 in 1999 would have relatively different or greater exposure to cultural differences compared against an 80 year old woman who has lived some of her life when there was rationing and / or shortages of food, goods and jobs.  She may well have been exposed to resentment voiced by family, friends, media, etc that (Black) immigrants would take jobs and, as a result, be able to buy the scarce goods and food which might prevent her from doing the same.

So, do different attitudes  evolve from exposure to differences and through a willingness to change one’s own perception? Is this a key to promoting equality and respect?  There are many challenges when dealing with someone who portrays different behaviours and values.  However, a willingness to consider the ‘other’ with authenticy is fundamental.  Engagement with others within the frame of right time, right environment, and right circumstances is important and necessary for successfully changing perceptions. This is best done by building an understanding and acknowledging the different types of ‘norms’ at play in a given situation.  Through this process, and by taking responsibility to be aware and reflect, helps build a bridge between different experiences and expectations.  Where appropriate, honest discussions with trusted colleagues are important, the alternative to this being the danger of stereotyping as a result of not discussing differences and one’s attitude to others.

I recalled a training session when a participant was dismissive of the plight of asylum seekers and refugees.  Her attitude was ‘They are leeching on us’, ‘Surely it can’t be that bad in their country,’ etc.  Despite being introduced to different perspectives by me (and other participants), she contacted me later and emphasised that she had discussed this issue with her friends, who colluded with her perspective and agreed that the evidence-based explanation given during the training session was false, biased and subjective.  In effect, she sought like-minded people to reinforce her stance and maintain her discriminatory attitude.  She was unwilling to consider, never mind acknowledge the perspective of, the ‘other’.

 The bridge building process / overcoming barriers requires a conscientious responsibility to be aware and a willingness to change one’s attitudes.  However, there is a fear of the reaction of people like the above participant having a volcanic effect – simmering beneath the surface but erupting en masse in a collective response, as evidenced during the World Cup in Ukraine when blatantly racist attitudes was displayed by groups of supporters.

Tackling assumptions and acknowledging attitudes is a powerful agent for change.  There is an old saying that you cannot understand someone else unless you have ‘walked a mile in their shoes’.  By having the enthusiasm and open mindedness to be exposed to, and be in wonder of, differences, we can move away from a polarised, pejorative debate on the lines of ‘Others are less than me because they are not like me’.

There are children playing in the street who could solve key problems because they have a model of perception, of wonder and awe that I lost long ago.  J Robert Oppenheimer

Image by Paulo Zerbato – Fine Art America



1. beatrice - October 4, 2012

It is very essential for D& I leaders t to be able to recognize and acknowledge those little drops that will make of the ocean tomorrow. thanks for sharing this piece with us Sneha!

2. maryarcher60 - October 4, 2012

Hello Sneha,
I totally uphold everything you have said, in the context of enabling others to have a different perspective on their own prejudiced thoughts. It will often work, and it is the sanest thing to do with regards to discrimination. However, with regards to racism, I believe that these attitudes are too virulent to be changed by learning, experience, and good human relations. Racist attitudes, are, I believe, held by people who achieve want they want to achieve by being racist. To express this in a very simplistic way, racists are not nice people.

3. Inclusion Weekly: October 3, 2012 | OPS Diversity - February 28, 2013

[…] Changing Perceptions – Source: Essence of Equality. […]

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