Being forced out of our comfort zones and allowing ourselves to be challenged about the thoughts and stereotypes we hold about other people is not something many of us adults enjoy doing.
We’ve come to believe that we’ve been through ‘the process already’ and also have a lot more to lose by admitting we’re wrong. We’re too embarrassed to admit that we hold prejudices, because society tells us that’s what we should’ve learnt as kids.
It’s why I think Channel 4’s The Great British School Swap — where 12 year eight and year nine pupils from completely different backgrounds swap schools for two weeks — is just the type of initiative we need to help tackle prejudices at a time when communities are becoming increasingly polarised.
Unlearning prejudices about those whom we think we inhabit a completely different world from isn’t as natural a part of education as many of us like to believe, nor is it something we can do through the comfort of a textbook.
It takes a willingness to make ourselves feel uncomfortable in the best way possible, to put ourselves in situations where we are forced to see the humanity of others, where we can’t hide behind screens or in our own bubbles. Where we have no choice but to interact with those who are different from us.
Watching the worlds of the volunteer children who come from totally opposite backgrounds collide was a reminder of the uncomfortable, but nonetheless necessary journey, I also had to undertake after going to primary and secondary schools that were made up almost entirely by a single demographic.
This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with growing up among a particular group of people, but that coming to believe that the views and experiences of one group alone are universal and the only frame of reference for interpreting the world is problematic.
Watching the children on the school swap having to debunk their own stereotypes of one another, often through conflict and disagreement reminded me of my own prejudices that I held along with so many of my fellow school mates.
Having never really had a ‘white friend’ at school, something borne out of circumstance rather than choice, we often relied on rumour, gossip and outdated stereotypes to formulate opinions of ‘what that lot are like’.
Much like the children on the show, our view of white communities was completely at odds with the reality. I along with many, never assumed we would have much in common with those we had come to believe were defined by outlandish ideas.
It’s why going to university, where all of a sudden I was a minority, was such a culture shock. Being put in a situation where I found myself having to learn to live with difference, where on the surface everybody appeared to have nothing in common with me and about whom I had been informed about but never got to really know myself, was both a difficult experience but one I’m grateful I underwent.
After growing up in a town that at times was labelled as the ‘epicentre of the global clash of civilisations’, where for most of the time I was on the defensive and was taught by some to fear the unknown, I quickly came to appreciate that the surest way to overcome these fears and prejudices was through contact with those who were different from me.
It’s why I wish we had schemes like the school swap a lot earlier, where it is far easier among younger minds to be open to ideas and be willing to accept where you are going wrong.
Yes it is shocking watching young people so brazenly share their prejudices in the open, but it is also a lesson to us all in how we must step outside our comfort zones to tackle our prejudices.
We wouldn’t tolerate our children going into the world ill-equipped with basic literacy and numeracy skills, something as a society we place so much emphasis on.
The same importance should also be attached to ensuring our children are well equipped to live in a multicultural society, where we have a lot more in common than we realise. Surely that’s the point of an education.
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