Mon | Oct 23, 2017

Michael Abrahams | We teach our children bigotry

Published:Monday | September 25, 2017 | 12:05 AM

One morning last week, I had an experience that got me thinking about how we influence our children. After breakfast, I entered my bathroom to get ready for work, but when I opened the door to the shower stall I saw a lizard sitting comfortably on the bath mat. I looked down at the creature, and it looked back up at me. I absolutely love reptiles, and have no fear of them. So, I slowly knelt, picked it up, and headed to the verandah to relocate it to the foliage of my front yard, where it would be more comfortable.

En route to my destination, I passed my youngest child, my five-year-old son, who was still having breakfast. “Come here, Zane. Let me show you something”, I said. “What is it?” he asked. “A lizard”, was my reply. He came out to the verandah, and as I slowly opened my hand, there was the lizard, looking at me, with its mouth wide open, cowering in fear. I invited my son to touch it. ‘Will it hurt me?” he asked. I replied, “Not at all. As a matter of fact, it is more afraid of you than you are of it”. He hesitantly touched the lizard’s tail and the creature shifted position, then ran up my bare forearm, arm, back, neck and head before jumping off and landing safely on a chair. The lizard’s gymnastics excited my son, but I remained calm. I then said to him, “See, there is nothing to fear”. When I was leaving for work, he was in the bath, and as I bade him farewell I asked, “Are you afraid of lizards?” The answer was a resounding “No!”

On my way to work I reflected on the experience that I shared with my son and that it demonstrated something that I was already aware of, but had not spent enough time, in my opinion, thinking about: the fact that children usually learn fear and prejudice from us. Some of the ugliest bigotry that adults demonstrate are ingrained in us from childhood. Negative stereotypes about people of different ethnicities, skin shades, nationalities, body shapes and sizes, political affiliations and sexual orientations give rise to racism, colourism/shadeism, xenophobia, and homophobia, among other biases.

I am grateful that during my childhood I cannot recall ever hearing any racial slurs being uttered in my home. Fortunately, I was not exposed to racism outside the home either, so I grew up with no racial biases. When I was older and encountered racially biased labels, I rejected them because of the examples set by those around me in my formative years.

Many groups of people acquire bad reputations because of fear and the refusal of others to try to understand them, just like lizards. People who fear lizards usually do so because of their appearance. They creep them out, and they fear that they may jump on them and crawl into certain orifices. The interesting thing about this fear, herpetophobia (the fear of reptiles), is that it is usually irrational. Lizards are, for the most part, harmless to us. As a matter of fact, they eat insects such as flies and cockroaches, which are vectors of disease and can contribute to illness in humans. The irony is that some women who fear lizards (some men fear them too) will chase lizards out of their bedrooms, but invite men who are no good for them, and will harm them, into their bedrooms, beds, and those same orifices that they fear lizards will enter, and then suffer dire consequences.

Similarly, we often judge others on how they look, and on the stereotypes that we were taught about them. We look at their complexions, hair textures, and facial features. We inspect their tattoos, piercings and the types of clothes they wear. We observe their mannerisms to see if they match their assigned genders and make note of the political parties they support. Then we decide if they are worthy or not. Our children observe our reactions and often adopt our own discriminatory attitudes. Bigotry and intolerance are learnt behaviours, and our children learn them from us.

It would be in the best interest of our children, and the planet, to confront our biases and ask ourselves if they are warranted and justifiable. When we categorize entire groups of people as being undeserving of respect, and treat them as such, we pass these attitudes on to our children. Many grow into adulthood holding on to these negative and unfair points of view, but are often unable to offer rational explanations for their prejudicial proclivities.

Humanity is diverse, and if our species is to thrive, we must learn to co-exist with one another. Examining our fears and prejudices appears to be an appropriate start. Just like lizards, some people are not as hideous as they appear to be.

- Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.