In A Class Divided, Jane Elliot was using the social identity approach to teach the children empathy, by decategorizing identities and by splitting the classroom up into two groups: the blue-eyed people and the brown-eyed people. She made the brown-eyed people into the group that was going to face the discrimination on Tuesday, and made the blue-eyed group the target of prejudice on Wednesday. In just these two days, the third graders learned a profound lesson on prejudice and discrimination that would inevitably affect their outlook in their adult life.
One of the blue-eyed students that used his position of power to bully another brown-eyed student said “All your inhibitions were gone and any pent up hostility or aggressions, you had a chance to get it all out,” (A Class Divided, 1985), no matter if that brown-eyed student was a friend or not. When he was then the target of discrimination as a blue-eyed person, he said he felt “demoralized, humiliated,” (A Class Divided, 1985). The lesson on empathy actually moved the students to learn what it was like to walk in the shoes of a group of people who were discriminated against, and the entire class agreed that the agony of facing such discrimination was worth the agony.
Elliot observed that her thoughtful and compassionate third graders would turn nasty and mean when they were being given the chance to exert power over others and feel the ideology that they were better than others. But by “simply putting ourselves in another person’s shoes, we can significantly reduce our unconscious biases – and significantly improve our real-world interactions with people who look different from us,” (Dixon, 2011). A chance at exercising empathy showed the students what it would feel like to be discriminated against when they wouldn’t get that experience elsewhere.
In our diverse society, it is best to practice cultural sensitivity, especially in some professional sectors such as the medical field. It is basically “knowing that cultural differences as well as similarities exist, without assigning values, i.e., better or worse, right or wrong, to those cultural differences,” (“How Does Cultural Competency Differ from Cultural Sensitivity/Awareness?”). This means that we should familiarize ourselves with different characteristics that make a culture different from us. For example, it would be beneficial to us to learn more about First Nations people, and about Muslim culture, in order to better understand their needs and provide better social services to them. For example, a doctor or a nurse with cultural awareness and sensitivity would be able to give better care and attention when they know about cultural differences.
There has also been the issue of cultural appropriation, which is when a dominant culture takes elements of a marginalized culture and use them for personal reasons, which would end up misrepresenting and disadvantaging another culture. This is because “using someone else’s cultural symbols to satisfy a persona need for self-expression is an exercise in privilege,” (Uwujaren, 2013), and this privilege is given to a group of people who do not have to face discrimination. A marginalized culture is expected to assimilate into the majority culture, because for those “who have felt forced and pressured to change the way we look, behave and speak just to earn enough respect to stay employed and safe, our modes of self-expression are still limited,” (Uwujaren, 2013). For example, African American Vernacular English is thought of as something that is less respectable than standard English, and yet some privileged people who steal elements of this language to make themselves look cool while people of the culture are treated worse. In order to actually address cultural appropriation, we must be culturally sensitive and aware of how we are crossing those lines of micro-aggressive discrimination and learn to respect differences.
Dixon, A. (2011). Can empathy reduce racism? Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life, UC Berkeley. Retrieved from http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/empathy_reduces_racism (1)
How does cultural competency differ from cultural sensitivity/awareness? (n.d.) Center for Effective Collaboration and Practice. Retrieved from http://cecp.air.org/cultural/Q_howdifferent.htm (2)
Uwujaren, J. (2013). The difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation. Everyday Feminism Magazine. Retrieved from http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/09/cultural-exchange-and-cultural- appropriation/ (2)
Williams, P. (Director). (1985). A Class Divided [Motion picture]. United States: PBS. (1)