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Discrimination & Stigma

Nobody is born unkind. Being unkind is something that people learn at home, in their communities and at school, but it can be unlearnt.

What is discrimination?

Discrimination refers to the unjust or hurtful treatment of certain individuals or groups, as a result of prejudice (a pre-formed negative attitude or judgement).  Prejudice leads people to view certain individuals or groups as inferior. People are discriminated against based on prejudice about a perceived difference, or identifying characteristic, such as:

  • race
  • sex and/or gender identity
  • age
  • sexual orientation
  • culture
  • religion
  • nationality
  • income
  • ability or health status
  • weight

Both children and adults can be discriminated against. Discrimination can be direct, or indirect, and comes in many forms, including:

  • bullying
  • harassment
  • abuse (verbal, physical, emotional, etc)
  • exclusion (from a group, team, institution, job, or other opportunities)

What is Stigma?

Stigma is the shame and disapproval associated with the negative perception of a particular situation, quality, or characteristic.  It causes someone to devalue or think less of the person (external stigma), or of themselves (internal stigma).

  • external stigma is what causes discrimination – for example, the false belief that overweight people are lazy, leads to mistreatment of overweight people
  • internal stigma is when someone feels shame and self-loathing about a part of themselves, and therefore expects to experience discrimination, and tries to avoid it (by, for example hiding it, lying about it, or avoiding situations in which they expect to be discriminated against).

Tips for talking to children about discrimination and stigma

Talking about discrimination can be hard enough for grown-ups, but talking to children about it can be even harder. However, experts agree that diversity and discrimination are critical issues that need to be discussed with children from an early age.

Children do notice when someone is different from themselves or what they are most familiar with. So, when Thabo asks why Lisa has a different colour skin to him, instead of ignoring him, start the conversation about difference and teach him to appreciate the value of diversity.

Some guidelines

  • accept that you feel uncomfortable – it is not an easy conversation to have
  • acknowledge emotions and feelings – strong emotions, such as anxiety, guilt, defensiveness or anger are often ignored or suppressed when discussing prejudice and discrimination
  • know that talking about differences does not increase prejudice in children
  • make the discussion open and ongoing – it should not just be one talk, but rather a series of conversations
  • make it age-appropriate and expand on the topic as the child gets older
  • encourage and respond to questions and cues from your child as they occur – children are naturally curious about difference, and avoiding talking about it makes children think there is something wrong with it
  • listen carefully to what your child wants to know and what they are feeling
  • talk about how discrimination hurts people
  • broaden their horizons by encouraging exposure to people from diverse backgrounds – this gives children more opportunities to learn about others, discover differences as well as what they have in common, and appreciate the value of diversity
  • look around you – encourage discussions based on what you see
  • plan ahead by developing responses to hurtful discriminatory statements, e.g. “What an unkind thing to say.” “How do you think you’d feel if you were that person?”
  • if you hear children say something discriminatory, use the opportunity as a conversation starter to address their fears, teach empathy and correct their misperceptions
  • children learn what they see, so challenge your own assumptions and behaviour – do you laugh at jokes that poke fun at and degrade people of a certain race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc?
  • demonstrate that you value diversity in the friends you choose and in the people whose services you choose to use
  • talk positively about each child’s physical characteristics and cultural heritage
    • tell stories about people from your ethnic group of whom you are especially proud
    • include people who have stood up against bias and injustice
    • encourage children to explore different kinds of toys, interests and activities that go beyond traditional gender norms
  • recognize that, because we live in a racist and prejudiced society, we must actively foster children’s anti-prejudice development – remember that in such an environment, we are all constantly and repeatedly exposed to messages that subtly reinforce prejudice; if we do nothing to counteract these messages, then we silently support and perpetuate prejudice by virtue of our inaction

Tips for talking to children who might be discriminated against

For children who are more likely to be targeted, talk openly about diversity and prejudice. Help prepare them for possible discrimination to offset possible discrimination-related stress.

Some guidelines

  • speak to them about difference and diversity
  • ensure that you build their self-esteem and focus on their strengths
  • expose them to examples of those who have triumphed in the face of discrimination
  • emphasise that discrimination is unacceptable, and that one should stand up for ones rights and be proud
  • give them the language to respond to instances of discrimination (role plays are helpful and allow children to ‘practice’ their responses)
  • encourage your child to talk about their experiences and allow them to feel what they feel – give them the words for those feelings, and the tools to manage them
  • always be the supportive force behind your child

What to do if your child is being discriminated against

Most importantly, listen to your child, and give them a safe space to feel, and to express their feelings. They may be angry, hurt, confused, sad or ashamed. They may be afraid to address the issue, or to go back to where the discrimination is happening/has happened.

It is then essential that you take action. You may be able to empower your child to be able to stand up for themselves and insist on being treated equally (if this would be safe for them to do), but if not, you need to stand up for them, and show that you are there to protect them.

In situations that require a legal intervention, contact the Human Rights Commission for advice:

You can also call Childline 116 for information and resources in your area.

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