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The psychology of prejudice

The Jewish festival of Pesach (Passover) is the current focus for Jews around the world. Pesach celebrates the liberation of the Hebrews from ancient Egypt where the Pharoah had kept them as oppressed slaves.

A more recent example of racial oppression was remembered on 21 March, when South Africans marked Human Rights Day, the anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre. On that day in 1960, police opened fire in the township of Sharpeville, during a demonstration against the apartheid "pass laws" that restricted the rights of Black people. The shooting killed 69 people and injured 180 more. In 1966 The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) made the tragic memory global by declaring 21 March International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Why do people or groups discriminate against each another?

Discrimination is a behavior. The main cause of a behaviour is always a feeling, thought or attitude. In this case the attitude is usually prejudice, from “pre-judge” - a word that means to hold opinions about others before knowing them, based on social categories such as race, gender, socio-economic status, age, nationality or religion. At best, prejudice can lead to differential treatment and low self-esteem; at worst, genocide. At the SAJM, in our diversity education programme we teach primary school children about prejudice and discrimination in an effort to help them grow up more aware of the dangers of both.

Where does prejudice come from?

We humans need to process enormous amounts of information in our minds, so we create patterns and categories to help us make sense of the world. We arrange ourselves into groups and make over-generalisations about group characteristics – called stereotypes. We also tend to stick with people in the same group as this is how we feel familiar and safe. We exaggerate similarities within our in-group and differences between us and out-groups. We may feel strong emotions such as fear, envy or disgust about out-groups as a result of circumstances such as early life experiences, conflict over limited resources, influence of friends and family, lack of interaction with out-groups, our personality types (i.e how secure, flexible or trusting we are) and our need to conform with our in-group. Negative emotions about ourselves and others often lead to an attitude of prejudice which, can in turn lead to acts of discrimination and oppression.

Reducing prejudice

Suggested ways to reduce prejudice include:

1. Being aware of our own biased beliefs

2. Increasing our contact with members of other social groups

3. Raising public support for anti-prejudice initiatives

4. Passing laws and regulations that require fair and equal treatment for all groups of people.

The SAJM’s Cultural Diversity Programme works to help primary school children understand how important tolerance is. We encourage empathy, kindness and openness to cross-group friendships. In this way we aim to reduce prejudice and bullying among young children. We hope that they will carry these values into adulthood, promoting a better and more just society wherever they go.

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