Is it Racism, a Culture Clash or a Breakdown in Communications?

Recently I saw a picture posted on Facebook that prompted discussion. On the face of it the offending item looked like out-and-out racism but a former colleague offered an interesting analysis that made me recall a tense moment in the classroom when teaching group formation (in-groups and out-groups) in social psychology. The picture is of a bench near a river with a sign on it reading ‘No Eastern Europeans’.

Racism, Culture Clash or Communication Breakdown?

The newspaper story reporting the incident highlights the issue of fish theft, which is also a contentious phrase. What does that mean? My former colleague writes on Facebook:

This looks like simple racism – but its actually just a culture clash. British coarse fishermen never remove fish from a lake – unless its simple theft, which is rare. Game fishermen will often take trout and salmon home to eat, limited by local regulations. This is a convention.

Many European fishermen – French, German and eastern European – expect to take fish home. They see catching fish to eat to be the motivation for going fishing. But British fishery owners are not aware of this, and see it as theft.

Just a little ignorance on both sides.

Now I admit that I do not know enough about coarse fishing or any other type for that matter. However this analysis does strike me as a better way forward than bandying about terms like ‘Eastern European’ and ‘racist’. It’s always important to remember that any communication involves a message, a transmitter of the message and that the is encoded. On the other hand, the message is received and then decoded. It’s never straightforward. There’s a great deal of scope for mis-communication.

If the aim of the sign is to enforce the rules of the game then it makes little sense to ban a whole team. If the message is to be correctly decoded we first have to consider the context for the encoding.

All of this reminded me of a lecture in group theory. I asked the class members to select a sticker from a choice of four colours (red, green, blue and yellow). Based on this basic criterion we created a number of groups to problem solve. However, a by-product of group assignment was that people started to defend their groups and how their group was superior to the others. They hadn’t been asked to do this. This effect illustrates what is known in social psychology as the minimal group paradigm. It demonstrates that the flimsiest of distinction between groups can be used as a basis of discrimination (‘us’ versus ‘them’). We discussed the principle, had a break and all students returned to their original seats. It was only then that I noticed something about the class dynamic.

I asked the group ‘Has anyone noticed anything?’ A student replied ‘Yes, and I don’t like it’. Everyone had noticed that all the ‘white students’ were sitting on one side of the room and all the ‘students of colour’ were sitting on the other. Apparently it was this way in other classes too and we set about discussing reasons for the arrangement. It transpired that skin colour was not the main reason for the division. All of the white students lived in halls of residence, they were all from different parts of the country. The students of colour were all local and all lived at home. This unexpected part of the lesson became a catalyst for the group to integrate more fully.

Now sometimes racism is unambiguous racism. Sometimes it’s an unconscious bias or a breakdown in communications. At other times it’s just ignorance, plain and simple. Sometimes communications and attitudes require outright condemnation. Sometimes we just need to be clearer in our communications, focus on behaviours not stereotypes and consider the broader context of the big picture.