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Why do we still discriminate?


Growing up in a socialist economy comes with its unique set of experiences. One particular experience that stands out in my memory is the struggle to get through the engineering school admission after Grade 12th. Like any struggle, this too is filled with mixed emotions – anxiety due to the uncertainty of the future and frustration due to not always getting the top choice. 

But there was one more emotion that I experienced that day. As I look back, it seems extremely unreasonable today, however, it was totally justifiable at that time. It was the feeling of anger, a feeling mainly directed towards the groups that were given special reservations at most colleges under the Affirmative Action policy in the Constitution. Scheduled Castes (SC), Scheduled Tribes (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) are the primary beneficiaries of this policy and they qualify since they were traditionally marginalised and underrepresented in most professional communities. 

These reservations are also extended in certain jobs particularly ones that are part of the State and Central government machinery. While this policy has been criticised due to multiple problems, it has helped a large number of people by giving them opportunities that otherwise would not have been within their reach. But the feeling of anger amongst those who are not eligible seems to be present in both the education as well as the professional communities. 

This feeling has an interesting parallel to one experienced in western countries in their dealings with racism. In the book Appraisal Processes in Emotion Ira Roseman, a social psychologist at Rutgers University, explains the change in the form of racism from the traditional “old fashioned racism” to a more “modern” form of racism. Most surveys indicate that in the United States, white racism towards blacks has come down significantly. Usually, this refers to the traditional form of racism where white racists would look down on blacks, consider them unworthy of respect and intellectually inadequate and would exclude them from their groups. These behaviours are usually associated with the emotion of Contempt, a feeling for someone we consider lower in status. However, the modern form of racism is has moved from Contempt to Anger. This feeling comes from the attribution of negative acts such as those related to safety (burglary, shooting, etc.), exploitation of public resources by relying on welfare payments, etc. The behaviours associated with this kind of racism are usually around being hostile towards the other group, criticising their actions and believing that they deserve more severe punishment as compared to the rest of the society – essentially justifying lack of fairness towards the black community.

Now, if one looks at the history of the marginalised groups in India, one can see a similar pattern. Untouchability, which is now banned in the country, was openly practised in the society. The underlying emotions here are probably a mix of disgust and contempt. And these usually arise due to the same attributions as what we observed in the traditional form of racism – this group is low and unworthy of sharing our physical space and hence, excluded from most public forums. Over the past few decades this discrimination has gradually subsided, especially in the urban parts of the country. The differences in the stature of the so called upper and lower castes have come down. However, the special treatment in the education and professional forums has given rise to anger. The Indian society is still scarce on opportunities due to its significantly large population. So, the special allocation of resources takes away what is already insufficient. This gives rise to the discontent against the minority groups. 

Is there any value in understanding these nuances of discrimination?  

There are probably still enough parts of the country where untouchability exists. We are currently living in a society where we need to deal with both the old form and the new form of discrimination. The usual approach to handle discrimination is to develop interventions that embed equality in society. While this works when there is contempt, this may not be a good idea while dealing with anger. In fact the more equal we believe all groups are, the more hostility we will feel against the group that is blocking our resources. 

We need a different kind of intervention here. The book referred earlier offers an interesting example. Two different groups of boys had frequent altercations and felt both contempt and anger against each other. These two groups were then placed in a situation where they had to cooperate in order to achieve a common goal. By the end of the exercise, new friendships were formed decreasing the intergroup hostility. 

The key idea is to move from a situation where we believe that the goal of the other group is inconsistent to our own goals. This is what the army does where group learning is a significant part of training. By creating more avenues where citizens can come together to target a common goal can help us manage these negative feelings that are held amongst the different societal groups. 

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#behaviouraldesign #racism #context #nonconscious #neuroscience #behaviour #untouchability #humanbrain

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