Updated: Mar 7, 2021
A man runs down a street, he is wearing lace up boots, a 'bomber jacket' and has a shaved head. Another man further down the street steps out of a car wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase.
At this point I pause the video clip and ask the group 'what is happening in this clip?'. The group respond that the man with the shaved head is up to 'no good' and is 'running away from someone or maybe going to mug the man with the briefcase'. I return to the video clip and press play and the man running is seen to throw his arms around the man with the briefcase. The group respond this time with 'yep, that's it the man with the briefcase is going to definately be mugged'. I press play again and we see the man with the shaved head pushing the other man out of the way as a large amount of concrete and debris fall from the sky, effectively saving the man's life. The credits roll to encourage us to consider how we can see things from a different perspective, advertising a famous newspaper.
This was the work I used to do in the National Probation Service, delivering a range of rehabilitation programmes to help individuals live more healthy, respectful lives. It was very powerful and rewarding. I write this blog today to explore how we can get beyond assumptions. I no longer coach and train in this area within the criminal justice world, but the approaches I used are still very valid today. I am writing this article as we go through extreme change from a world pandemic, Covid, and also as we speak out against injustices as we reel in shock from the death of George Floyd. We are always learning and I am constantly challenging myself with the assumptions that I make in life.
I hope this article provokes thought. I would love to hear your responses.
You may have heard the expression to 'assume' makes an 'ass' out of 'u' and 'me'. This is one of my favourite expressions and helps as a reminder to think beyond our influences growing up, the media portrayal of life, the stereotypes that we hold about our peer group - just about everything! We are strong if we can challenge ourselves this way.
So what does it mean to assume or make an assumption? The Cambridge University dictionary describes is as 'something you accept as true without question or proof'.
Stereotypes fit into this.
If we stereotype it means we assume that a group of people who may share some characteristics also share certain attributes. It could be that someone assumes something about you based on one part of your identity. An example could be 'all women wear make up' just because we are woman. To some extent these assumptions may be helpful as they enable us to make sense of the world. However they can also fall into being negatively harmful, over simplistic and unfair depending.
Stereotyping can mean we can manage the huge amount of information that we encounter, it can also help us to deal with difference, help us to feel safe and form group identities. However stereotyping people can have adverse effects on others, if certain groups consider themselves to be superior to the other which can lead to prejudice and bias.
Where do our assumptions come from?
Dutton in his 'nested ecological model' proposed that broader culture (macrosystem), subculture (exosystem), the family (microsystem) and individual characteristics (ontogeny) influence a person's behaviour. So our culture, our society, our family/friends and ourselves all play a part in how we think and behave.
We are incredible as human beings as we are picking up information all the time. We have ideas from what we have learned about other people and groups from what our family say, the beliefs that our friends share with us, how we see others live their lives, the culture we are born into, the media we tune into and our experiences growing up.
The problem that we have as human beings is that purely by belonging to one group or another, having society and cultural influences, we can fall into assumptions. It is a constant struggle to keep challenging our thinking, our intent and also the categories we think in. Aron Beck describes how we can have a tendency to think in categories. This inevitably leads to over-simplifying and distorting. Groups often attribute positive characteristics to themselves and we can often be unconscious of thinking in categories. Beck quotes research that shows that people find it harder to assign positive words to pictures when the image is of a person of a different background to themselves, but easier when the background is similar.
So now we have had a think about how we as human beings can think in stereotypes, make assumptions and can lean towards seeing our own 'group' as positive, what can we do about it?
I struggled growing up in an affluent area with 'suits'. I always felt, as a teenager that if a person was wearing a suit that they knew what they were doing, that they were in charge and would be judging my 'scruffy self'. I self identified with sub-culture really liking punk, goth music and feeling uncomfortable around 'suits'.
As I grew older and challenged these perceptions and increased my confidence in my self identity I look back at these beliefs and smile.
A suit is an item of clothing!
However we all make assumptions and it helps to be compassionate to ourselves when having a think about how we can move beyond them.
Here are 6 areas to help you to move beyond assumptions:
1. Self exploration and identity
We can start by considering our own culture and socialisation process. If we understand our own then this helps us to respect other cultures. We can identify why we think the way we do and start to understand our values and beliefs.
Have a think about your family and people that are in your life; what influenced you growing up? Have a think about your own cultural roots.
What was going on for you in your school years, your adolescence and beyond? Have a think about your neighbourhood, events that happened growing up and any significant people in your community that had an influence on you. These are all key to understanding your identity now and in the future. Our identity is a fluid concept that changes dependent on the situation. It is worth mentioning however that it is also important to establish our ethnicity as this has a formulative impact on identity.
2. Asking others about their influences
You probably have heard the expression 'don't judge a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes'. But we do, right? We as humans can so easily slip into these judgement calls.
When was the last time you met someone in person or virtually and you sought to understand them and find out about how they define themselves or about their influences?
We can't literally walk a mile in their shoes but we can invite them to share what a mile would look like.
I have recently had the fortune to connect more with others and learn about different peoples and countries. I find that people love to share their stories. It is also important to allow others to self define if we are not to fall into making assumptions and making an ass out of ourselves!
3. Checking our intent
It is a really good idea to ask ourselves 'what do I intend the other person to think, feel or do with my question or statement or behaviour?' 'Do I have good intentions here or could my statement create some hurt and misunderstanding?.'
If you step into their perspective for a moment would you appreciate being asked the same thing?
Are you using assumptions here to make things simpler for you - who does the comment you are making really benefit? This is really tough and we are hard wired for avoiding difficult situations and thoughts so sometimes pulling our head out of the sand and taking a really good look at what we are really, really asking is not always easy. Respect to you!
4. The spirit of curiosity
What positive experiences have you had this week in relation to your contact with people who are different from you that you took the time to get to know?
Have a think about your learning experiences and ask yourself 'was I curious about that person/group of people?', 'what questions did I ask that helped me to find out more', or 'have I learned anything that has changed the way I think about a group of people'?
On a personal level I held negative stereotypes about the royal family, and although I may still hold some of these I have really enjoyed watching Netflix's The Crown and learning about the politics of the time and how much of my history has been shaped by the monarchy. I do realise, of course, that a great deal is fiction, but I am 50 this year and my younger self would have laughed at me even contemplating this programme!
5. Know and question your influences
As described previously we all have influences from our culture, society, friends, family, community and close relationships. We maybe into certain music due to influences of our older relatives, for example I really love reggae as my dad took me to Jamaica in the early 70's and brought a whole load of amazing music back, and we may have also received more unhelpful damaging influences which require challenging.
Hiro (1997) quoted Wade on the subject of cultural, racial and social identity and racism:
'....people come to the issues of culture and race with preconceived notions rather than having an open mind. Their racism comes not from a contemporary perspective but from views passed down over generations'.
If I think back to the views passed down from my family members who had relatives that lived in Zimbabwe, I had many years growing up where I was challenging my family on racist views.
I remember many unhelpful arguments growing up which did not help to change my relatives' views, but it helped me to to define myself and the work I was to do in the future becoming become trained up and working to address racism working for the criminal justice sector. It can be helpful to consider your culture, identity and influences of family, friends, media and music and keep questioning if anything feels wrong.
6. All people are equal
So if you know your Animal Farm and Orwell you will know that this is something that we are always working to address as human beings. The bottom line is all people are equal and it is our responsibility to reinforce this at every opportunity in our interaction with others. The power differential may be different, true, so with our children we may have to make some difficult decisions to keep them safe and it may not always feel equal but this is a lovely message to keep on keeping on working on. It will be a beautiful world if this is the acknowledged message.
So together let's keep the dialogue going, let's keep challenging ourselves and empower others to be themselves, in continuous learning about difference and why it should be celebrated.
About my journey
I have worked for many years in probation, one of my roles as a diversity trainer, I trained probation officers to work with clients convicted of racially aggravated and motivated offences and worked directly with 1:1 and in groups with the clientele to move them away from these abusive behaviours. I also worked coaching and facilitating groups to address other hate crimes, including domestic abuse. The term 'hate crime' was used to describe offences motivated by racial/religious, homophobic and disability linked hostility towards the victim. I initially started working in Willesden/Harlesden in Middlesex Probation, before moving to work in Bristol, and in the London office worked in a minority as a white women in a predominately Afro-Caribbean work place. I became the go-to person to help support and work to address racism. I would like to mention the wonderful resources I had to work from which included: the positive and practical guide to working with black offenders; the work of the Greenwich Project and the London Probation Diversity Awareness and Prejudice toolkit.