You need a learner’s licence to stop discriminating... at first

Friday February 8 2019


Talking of being discriminated against is a habit many of us have. Through repetition, our adaptive unconscious takes over to see the role of others as discriminators while often failing to see the other side of the coin of our own role as discriminators. FOTOSEARCH 

More by this Author

When I first acquired a driver’s licence, my elder brother told me that one day I would drive the way I breathe, without thinking about it. Given my then fear of driving, I couldn’t imagine something as profound as that.

I would approach the car as if it carried a disease I was afraid to catch, check the tyres, get in gingerly, ensure the gear was in neutral, strap on the seat belt, adjust the mirrors, check the gear again, and finally, hands on the steering wheel positioned at “quarter to three,” inch forward. My face would be covered with a thin layer of sweat, reflecting the churning terror inside.

I learnt later that the stress from these simple actions – increased when, say, changing lanes or overtaking – was because the conscious mind, which is not good at multi-tasking, is usually in control at this stage and generates anxiety as the different tasks towards ensuring a smooth drive are performed.

My driving anxiety ended because through repetition, our adaptive unconscious takes over from the conscious mind. Once the transition from conscious to unconscious occurs, a habit is formed, making whatever we are doing easy.

The habit-forming pattern applies to any learning process, whether it involves solving a puzzle, filling in a crossword, learning a new language or a new musical instrument.

This is a principle I often apply when facilitating ethnic dialogue. After agreeing on rules for respectful engagement, I ask for experiences on being discriminated against on the basis of ethnicity. The room buzzes. Everyone, it seems, has an experience of being discriminated against.


I then ask them to talk about when they in turn discriminated against other people on the basis of ethnicity. You can hear a pin drop in the silence that follows. Nobody wants to talk about her or his role as a discriminator.

When they eventually describe their roles as discriminators, they get as anxious as I did when learning how to drive. Brows are furrowed, options weighed: “Should I say this or not, did I or did I not discriminate?” Notebooks are brought out, followed by the inevitable thin layer of sweat.

The participants begin to realise that it does not matter who you are, everybody is capable of discriminating.

They speak haltingly, listing their mostly unconscious stereotypes and prejudices; talk about discussing official business in a language not everyone understands; about treating minorities like tokens by showing them off to visitors – without regard to their feelings – to demonstrate how ethnically representative the company is; about using stereotypes such as – they are thieves, illiterate, arrogant, witches, primitive, greedy – to describe other people; about not dignifying people by using their names, instead referring to them by ethnic community, “Has that Maasai, Ankole, Shulluk, Oromo, Hausa, Zulu, woman accountant finalised the payroll yet?”; referring to all people from an ethnic community by one generic name because their names are “difficult”; ganging up with members of one’s ethnic community in meetings to oppose colleagues’ ideas; promoting or giving training opportunities to “our own” ethnic communities; using coded language to describe work colleagues; asking someone, especially from a minority ethnic community, to confirm if they and not someone else has really done the work. Sometimes it gets as bad as insults such as, “You stupid {name of ethnic community} man!”

Talking of being discriminated against is a habit many of us have. Through repetition, our adaptive unconscious takes over to see the role of others as discriminators while often failing to see the other side of the coin of our own role as discriminators.

A person who is targeted for ethnic discrimination through deliberate isolation feels alienated, and develops an inferiority complex or deep-seated resentment towards the discriminator and her/his ethnic community, even those who did not participate directly. This decreases interaction between the parties.

Now imagine how this interaction could be improved upon if talking about our roles as discriminators were a shared habit. Imagine what can happen if honest conversation on our roles as discriminators became a social norm? It would result in the eroding of social structures that exclude people on the basis of ethnicity.

If we speak about our roles as discriminators with the trepidation of a learner driver, constantly checking that all is well, but do it repeatedly, it will become as natural as breathing. Try it!

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism: Exploring Ethnic and Racial Diversity for Educators, and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail: [email protected]