I am sure that many of you share a certain frustration when observing how present stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination still are in our societies but some of you might also believe that these issues are no longer relevant in our daily lives.

We are a group of young people that founded an organization called “Bridging Gaps” because we believe that young people are capable of shaping the future of a society with fewer prejudices if they have positive interactions that allows them to overcome racial prejudices. That’s why we started our initiative “Bridges Camp”, where young people from different backgrounds come together and experience a great week together to eventually overcoming their prejudices.

We have designed a programme that follows psychological theories and combines pedagogical exercises with leisure activities. While playing games together, the teenagers learn that they all have something in common and are able to connect.

We have already organized four successful camps in South Africa and reached nearly 100 teenagers. One of our previous participants, Tamelin, 15 years old, described what she has learned at the camp:

“At the camp, I have learned that no matter where people come from or which skin colour they have, I have friends all around.” (Tamelin, 15 years)

As most of the teenagers that attend these projects can’t afford to contribute financially, we raise money to cover all our expenses. When we speak to people, mainly in Germany and in South Africa, we get a lot of positive reactions and support. However we are also faced with a lot of suspicion and reactions such as:

“But teenagers don’t have prejudices, they are still open-minded.”

 “I don’t think stereotypes are a problem because essentially we are just different types of people!”

“Most people are not even racist or prejudiced, it is just a few that discriminate or hurt others!”

“Why should I give money for a project like that as there are more important issues, like poverty”

 “It’s the fault of our leaders that have all these stereotypes!”

“You are wasting your time! We will never overcome prejudices and racism in our society!”

I want to take this chance to reply to these comments. In my view, they represent several general misconceptions about the topics of stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination and I wish to show different ways to approach these issues.

“But teenagers don’t have prejudices, they are still open-minded”

Unfortunately we had a different impression our camps: Irrespective of their background, the participants come with clear ideas about each other and believe that they won’t be able to become friends. They are not only prejudiced but also have negative feelings when interacting with each other in the beginning. We often observed that they even hide their belongings being afraid that someone might steal something from them!

These reactions become understandable if we consider the fact that stereotypes and prejudices are learned by children as part of their socialization. Obviously children are often taught directly that there are certain differences between people and how other people seem to be. But they also learn these things through a more indirect way by observing their environment: Even if I don’t tell my child that white people are different from black people, it will observe my behavior and still assume that if we only have friends that look similar to us. Another example is that children will pick up if I show fear or a sense of superiority when interacting with people of another group.

I often asked people why they hold certain prejudices and always find it astonishing how much they struggle to actually provide valid reasons. They often refer to a single case, like “a person of that group has once done something” or emphasize the fact that they just feel different from the others. This clearly shows us that stereotypes are not merely rational but closely related to emotions! This becomes understandable if we consider how stereotypes and prejudices are passed on because irrespective whether children learn about them directly or indirectly, they are hardly explained why they should believe that!

We believe it is crucial to provide a platform for young people to overcome these negative emotions and become real friends rather than just explaining them that they shouldn’t be prejudiced.

“I don’t think stereotypes are a problem because essentially we are just different types of people!”

What often surprises me even more than the teenager’s prejudices is their deep conviction that they are fundamentally different from each other. They believe that it is impossible for them to befriend each other as they perceive the others as completely different. They are surprised to even learn about very small similarities, such as a shared interest in soccer or a love for fancy food. This fundamental assumption of significant differences reflects in the way  many people speak, often referring to “Us” and “Them”. Another way to describe this distinction is the concept of “othering”. For us this describes the assumptions that there are certain groups of people and the belief that the group I feel part of is essentially different from “the others”.  We often think that “they” can’t be compared to “us” and the way “they” live is essentially different from “our” approach to life. I am convinced that this differentiation and the process of “othering” are the fundamental basis of stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination. We can also find examples in the way people speak about “others” or in the way we live together. One example is if people rationalize why members of certain groups should earn different salaries or assume a certain group id happy even though “they” face very difficult situations. This can be explained by the assumption of many people that members of different groups are fundamentally different therefore don’t need or deserve a similar standard of living.

I emphasize this point to show that it is already problematic to believe that people can easily be placed in certain groups that are fundamentally different from each other. We should question the purpose and the legitimacy of this notion of “us” and “them”.

“Most people are not even racist or prejudiced, it is just a few that discriminate or hurt others!”

This statement reflects a common misperception about what it means to be racist or hold certain prejudices. Many people seem to have a very biased and limited understanding what these concepts entail and believe discrimination only starts when I walk up straight to someone and insult him or her. We struggle to understand that discrimination in several forms is deeply rooted in our societies. The different treatment of people that are often portrayed in very stereotypical ways seems to be such an integral part of our everyday life and we are often unaware of that. I believe that it is important to understand that all forms of discrimination are painful even if they seem harmless.

Understanding that these processes are such an integral part of our society suggests that nearly all people have prejudices and discriminate others to some extent. This also brings us to the question of guilt that is often raised when speaking about prejudices and discrimination. We had some intense discussions with the teenagers we work with, questioning if we can blame a person for having prejudices or discriminating others. The teenagers voiced very different opinions and I don’t want to pretend that I could find an answer to that question. However I do believe that it is not surprising that most people will internalize the attitudes they perceive around them when growing up. The question of who is guilty is therefore less important for me than a deep conviction that we firstly all try to become aware of stereotypes and discrimination in our society. And secondly we should take responsibility to chance our harmful attitudes. Or to put it more straightforward, like one of our participants once said: “I understand that people learn that when they grow up, but they have to use their common sense!”

That’s why our goal is to provide a platform for the teenagers to understand what prejudices and discrimination mean and to encourage them to become more open-minded without blaming anybody.

This statement also shows us is that many people don’t want to be prejudiced or racist but struggle to overcome these attitudes. One reason for that is that they are not fully aware what discrimination means and how harmful prejudices can be. This also means that it can be promising to create an awareness and support people to lower their prejudices.

“Why should I give money for a project like that as there are more important issues, like poverty”

Many people often ask why we are concerned about stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination of certain groups. They point out that there seem to be more severe issues that need urgent attention and often mention poverty and inequality on a societal or global level. However, the question is, whether these challenges can actually be separated from each other. In my perception they are closely related: Firstly, many people face poor living conditions as they are discriminated, e.g. in the educational system or on the labor market. Secondly, I also believe that inequality and poverty in a society are linked to a stereotypical representation of poor people, e.g. in the media. It is often assumed that poverty can’t be alleviated because “poor people” don’t appreciate any support , don’t want to work or are unable to change their situation. This also suggests that “they” don’t deserve or need better living conditions. Prejudices and the process of “othering” seem to legitimize an attitude of accepting poverty and assuming that poor people are responsible for their situation.

I could elaborate more and show how stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination are interconnected with many societal problems. However, I just want to sum it up by emphasizing that I do believe we should address all societal problems and that a good understanding of societal structures can help us to come up with a broader solution. I am convinced that reducing prejudices and discrimination should be an integral part of every approach.

“It’s the fault of our leaders that have all these stereotypes!”

I do agree that good leaders can have a huge effect on reducing prejudices and discrimination. However, it is shocking how often people in powerful positions have actually done the exact opposite and used or manipulated stereotypes and suspicion between groups to achieve various goals, most commonly to stay in power. But I am also convinced that we can’t only blame the leadership for the way we interact and live together in our societies. Every person is responsible for the way they live and I wish we could all aspire to live in a way that does not harm others. This entails to become aware of the negative consequences of stereotypes and prejudices and consequently make an effort to reduce them. As much as we wish for good leaders who will create that awareness and encourage people to live together in a more tolerant way, we tried to ask ourselves, what we could do and we decided to become positive role models for the teenagers we work with!

“You are wasting your time! We will never overcome prejudices and racism in our society!”

We are not naïve in our approach and are aware that we won’t change the whole society by working with a bunch of teenagers. However we believe that our work creates a space for them to learn that most prejudices they had before the camp were actually wrong. We hope that they can realize how stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination affect us and the way we live together in society and be motivated to develop an understanding and more tolerance for each other. We have seen a real change in the behavior of many of the participants and were happy to see that many wish to share everything they learnt in their environment. We believe that all our efforts are worth it, if we can “only” achieve this!

Why we should all overcome prejudices.

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