'Us and Them'. Equality and Non-discrimination
This module addresses a fundamental principle of human rights – the right to equal treatment requires that all persons be treated equally before the law, without discrimination.
Short description of the session
In this session’s introductory exercise, the pupils are to experience how and why categorisation occurs, and how notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ can be constructed. The exercise will prepare the pupils to reflect upon issues connected to ‘othering’, how stereotypes and prejudice are created and upheld, and why discrimination against minorities is so widespread. In the subsequent group work, the pupils will analyse who have been ‘the others’ in history and today, in Bulgaria and internationally. One important conclusion is that human rights instruments prohibit all forms of discrimination and protect the rights of minorities. Human rights give us freedom, including the freedom to be different from others.
‘All different, all equal’
- Make the pupils aware of how notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ are constructed.
- Make the pupils understand the connection between portraying people as ‘the others’ and how stereotypes are created and upheld and discrimination occurs.
- Make the pupils learn that human dignity and equality are fundamental values of human rights, and that human rights instruments prohibit discrimination and protect the rights of minorities.
- Promote an attitude of tolerance, openness and respect towards other people, including minorities.
- Time: 40 minutes – 4 hours (depending on how in-depth the teacher wants to go, and whether he/she want to include the following up group work)
— For the introductory exercise (30–45 minutes): Small paper dots with glue on one side to place on each participant’s forehead. The dots must be in at least five different colours. The best number of participants for doing this exercise is between 15 and 30.
— For the follow-up group work: Big sheets of paper and markers
Introductory Activity: ‘Us’ and ‘Them’
- The teacher asks the pupils to place themselves in a circle facing the session leader who stands in the middle. He/she says to the pupils: ‘I will soon ask you to close your eyes. You are not allowed to open your eyes until I say so. While you have your eyes closed, you will feel a soft touch against your forehead. Close your eyes please.’
- While the pupils have their eyes closed, the teacher places a paper dot on their foreheads. The dots must be in different colours and some of the pupils (e.g. 4–6) will receive the same colours. Two of the pupils will be given dots with colours that nobody else has. (NB: The persons chosen for this must have enough self-confidence to be able to stand alone outside the groups, which will be the result of the exercise. They must also be ready to talk a little bit about what they experienced during the exercise.)
- When everyone has been given a dot (still with their eyes closed) the session leader will say to them: ‘When I say “Open your eyes” your task is to make groups. Open your eyes please’.
Usually the pupils, after opening their eyes, will be unsure of what to do. However, after a short while, they will gather into groups. In 99 per cent of the cases, the pupils with the same ‘dot colour’ will go together. In a group of 25 participants, there will be a ‘blue’, a ‘red’, a ‘yellow’ group and so on. Very often, the two pupils with dot colours that differ from the rest will end up outside the groups or come together.
NB: The teacher should take note of what happens while the pupils are making groups. The observations may be useful in the discussion afterwards. Is anybody directing the others and taking the lead? Are they talking? (Often, they believe they are not allowed to speak, even if the teacher has said nothing about that). What about the two who have their own colour? Do they try to join some of the groups? What are the reactions?
- When the pupils have formed their groups, the teacher opens for reflections. Individual pupils might be addressed with some short questions to start the reflection. The discussion and debriefing can take place while everyone is standing on the floor.
- Addressed to pupils in one of the coloured groups: Can you tell me how you ended up in this group? (Was it difficult to find ‘your’ group? Did you find out what colour you had? How?)
- Addressed to the persons who stand alone: Why are you standing alone? (Did you ask some of the other groups to join? What was their reaction? Did someone invite you into their group?)
- To all: What are positive aspects of belonging to a group? (The pupils will often mention that people are stronger together, they need to be social, have fun, feel safe, be more powerful and so on)
- Can there be negative aspects? What sort? Why?
- How does it feel to stand alone? Is the feeling of loneliness something we all can relate to and have experienced?
Usually pupils find the exercise interesting and will have many comments.
- One main conclusion is that establishing groups is a human trait. Throughout history, in all cultures and civilisations, human beings have established groups. We are social creatures: an infant will die without others around it, and we cannot learn how to speak without interacting with others. Forming groups is a natural thing.
- One aspect that we seldom reflect on is that this ability of ours to ‘think in groups and categories’ makes the world easier to understand. By using just one characteristic, e.g. children, nurses, refugees, girls, Bulgarians, Norwegians and so on, we are able to think about many people at the same time. Our orientation in the world becomes easier.
- It is important, however, to remember that when we categorise, we simplify. We tend to think that the people in the group are more similar than they really are. Often the differences within one group will be larger than between the groups.
- It is also important to be aware that while we establish groups, we establish borders between us and ‘the others’ as well. The result can be the ‘us and them’ dichotomy. We create groups and they function for good and bad. As the exercise showed, it can feel lonely to be left outside.
- These psychological mechanisms can be sources of conflict in society. In all wars and conflicts the ‘us and them’ dichotomy has been used for political purposes. To get support, politicians and other leaders often tend to define some groups as ‘the others’. Often ‘the others’ have been ‘labelled’ to influence what ‘we’ think about them. Stereotypes and prejudices, discrimination and human-rights abuses can be the obvious next steps.
- It is important that all of us become aware of these mechanisms. Even if people share some characteristics, for example that they are Bulgarian, girls, athletes, immigrants, religious, children, or share other characteristics, all human beings are complex and unique with a mixture of characteristics, features, qualities and experiences. Always try to see the individual instead of only the group. And next time you find yourself in a group, maybe you should invite others in?
- As a conclusion, the teacher should remind the pupils that one fundamental aim with human rights is to protect people from discrimination. Article 1 and 2 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) reads:
Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. (…) Follow-up group work: ‘The others’ in history and today
Divide the pupils into four groups which will work with minorities before and now. Each group will work with one of these categories:
- Minorities that have been discriminated against internationally in the past
- Minorities that have been discriminated against in Bulgaria recently in the past
- Minorities that are being discriminated against today internationally
- Minorities that are being discriminated against today in Bulgaria
The groups will answer these questions:
- Which are the minorities?
- Have there been developed stereotypes and/or prejudices connected to the group? If yes, give examples.
- What sort of discrimination has the group been subjected to?
- Has the discrimination been authorised by state authorities, or ‘just’ by ordinary people?
- Which articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) are relevant to understand what sort of discrimination the group has been subjected to?
The groups will present their work in the plenary.
Tips for the teacher
- A good tip is to let the groups that have worked with discrimination in the past present their work first. Then the session will end with today's discrimination.
- The presentations will show that discrimination that took place in history, to a greater extent was authorised by state authorities. Today most countries have ratified human rights treaties that prohibit discrimination.
- The presentations will also show that the minorities that are subject to discrimination change over time, and that is a result of developments in the majority population, (ideology, politics, prejudices, new knowledge, education, etc.), rather than due to characteristics of the minorities themselves.
- A question for discussion after the presentations can be what state authorities can do to prevent discrimination. Do the pupils know about good examples?
As we have seen, establishing groups is a human trait. It is important, however, to be aware that this tendency to categorise people based on certain common characteristics may lead to creation of stereotypes and that we may lose sight of people’s individuality. All human beings are complex individuals who should be met with respect and openness. Negative stereotypes can lead to bullying, exclusion, discrimination, and human rights violations. If created and supported by political leaders, stereotypes can lead to conflicts and wars. Human rights protect all people against discrimination. We can fight stereotypes and prejudices in many ways, and we should do it every time we have the opportunity.
How to use the museums
Many museums can be visited in order for pupils to work with issues connected to ‘us’ and ‘them’. Historical as well as contemporary museums and art museums are all well suited.
The pupils can work in groups or individually with different tasks. They can work on a topic for shorter or longer periods. They can write essays or prepare presentations for the others in the classroom and open up for questions and discussions.
The pupils can use their mobile phones to take pictures from the exhibition that illustrate important points, to show to the others back in the classroom.
- Does the museum in their exhibitions, in any way, portray minority groups? If yes, give examples.
- If the museum portrays or presents minorities: Does the presentation underline differences or similarities between the minorities and the majority? Give examples.
- Do the museum in any way make use of stereotypes and/or prejudice in their presentations/ exhibitions?
- Can you see a change in how the museum has presented and/or presents minorities before and now?
- What can we learn?
Visiting art museums
- Can you find paintings that in some way are relevant for reflections connected to the ‘us and them’ dichotomy? If you find any – how are the ‘others’ portrayed?
- Can you find examples of stereotypes and prejudice that are being used?
- Can you see a change in how ‘the others’ are being portrayed in historic paintings, in comparison to contemporary art?
- What can we learn?
Back in the classroom the pupils are to produce an exhibition about minority groups. The aim is to challenge negative stereotypes and promote respect and tolerance. How would the pupils design the exhibition? Are there one or more articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) that is particularly well suited to be used as a key message in the exhibition?
Can all persons including yourself in certain circumstances be perceived as belonging to ‘the others’?