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The Stranger in your Camp


Katherine Birbalsingh

Interesting to hear Katherine Birbalsingh interviewed this morning. She is the former deputy headteacher from London who addressed this year’s conservative party conference and was promptly suspended by her school for speaking against the party line regarding pupil behaviour and racial prejudice.

Ms Birbalsingh was making an important and timely point. Her conference speech claimed that young black males, who are pupils in South London schools, were being allowed to behave atrociously yet remain in school because headteachers were afraid of being branded as racists.

Handily for our brave deputy, there is a new piece of research which appears to support her case. A study by EP Apfelbaum  and her colleagues looked at different models of tackling racism in schools and found that turning a blind eye – albeit a colour-blind one – is both bad for schools and bad for victims of racism.

One of the most common forms of equality management is known as the colour-blind approach: you treat everyone equally, irrespective of ethnicity. In tests with schoolchildren, Professor Apfelbaum found that an alternative – value-diversity – which examines and values difference – was more likely to encourage children and teachers to identify and challenge discriminatory behaviour and attitudes.

In this spirit of confronting inconvenient truths, some work on the neuroscience of discrimination and prejudice caught my eye.

Researchers in Zurich studied sixteen fans from a football supporters group and – with a nod to Stanley Milgram‘s seminal work – offered them a series of chances to a) take on a share of or b) watch and enjoy the pain (actually faked) inflicted on a fellow supporter or an opposition supporter.

Using a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, they found – perhaps unsurprisingly – that fans were more likely:
– to show activity in an area of the brain which showed an appreciation of other people’s pain when watching their fellow supporters suffer; &
– to activate that part of the brain associated with cheats being punished when seeing opposition supporters suffering.

So we empathise with our fellows but we are ready to blame the inherent guilt of strangers. We all know how this works, don’t we? If I am late it is because there was a hold-up on the bypass. If you are late it is because you simply can’t organise your life properly!

A Chinese research team last year found that people’s unconscious brain response to simple motions in others also varied according to whether the others were of the same race, but by using sports fandom as the “Us-Them” dividing line, this new paper is a reminder that ethnicity isn’t unique.

People’s unconscious response is to discriminate in favour of those with whom they feel a bond of affinity… and to be distrusting of strangers.

Some prejudices we are born with. In many cases, they keeps us safe. For example, it is right that we have a distrust of strangers. This was an evolutionary advantage in the past and we still teach stranger-danger messages to our children. But it is the kindness of and to strangers that we are taught in our religions and folklore.

The Torah (Old Testament), for example, repeatedly instructs us to care for the stranger in your camp. It is our moral duty as civilised human beings to care for those worse off than ourselves, and to overcome our innate sense of distrust by so doing.

Civilisation – however gained – gives us the thin layer of self-control  by which we can regulate and rise above our natural instincts.

Studies such as these give us the tools that allow us to complete this task.


Apfelbaum EP, Pauker K, Sommers SR, Ambady N (2010) In Blind Pursuit of Racial Equality?, Psychol Sci. 2010 Sep 28. [Epub ahead of print]

Gutsell, J., & Inzlicht, M. (2010). Empathy constrained: Prejudice predicts reduced mental simulation of actions during observation of outgroups Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

Hein, G., Silani, G., Preuschoff, K., Batson, C., & Singer, T. (2010). Neural Responses to Ingroup and Outgroup Members’ Suffering Predict Individual Differences in Costly Helping Neuron, 68 (1), 149-160

Singer, T., Seymour, B., O’Doherty, J., Stephan, K., Dolan, R., & Frith, C. (2006). Empathic neural responses are modulated by the perceived fairness of others Nature, 439 (7075), 466-469

Xu, X., Zuo, X., Wang, X., & Han, S. (2009). Do You Feel My Pain? Racial Group Membership Modulates Empathic Neural Responses Journal of Neuroscience, 29 (26), 8525-8529

From → Communities, Research

  1. The scientific community is already one community that is color-blind but not blind to the veracity of arguments.

    Wish the whole world would work like that! Thank you for putting some interesting thoughts together!

    Alexa Fleckenstein M.D., physician, author.

    • Hmm… true of the scientific community in its ideal form, but – just as in education – I suspect that where professional practice is influenced by personal character, there is room for discrimination.
      Of course, this lady is that most authoritarian of figures – a teacher of French. Modern foreign language teachers have form here. Colin Lacey, in his work on the socialisation of teachers (1977), found that MFL teachers were likely to be among the most authoritarian in their teaching styles.
      Indeed, there is probably nothing as likely as teaching French in an inner city comprehensive school to be guaranteed to turn you from a gentle radical into a screaming reactionary…!

  2. For an interesting additional aspect to this – see Fluency & Trust

  3. Just an update on this post. Two interesting articles on bullying, its sequellae and strategies for prevention have just been reported on the Child Psychology Research Blog ( Discussion of colour and gay blind policies and their (lack of) efficacy.

    Sourander, A., Ronning, J., Brunstein-Klomek, A., Gyllenberg, D., Kumpulainen, K., Niemela, S., Helenius, H., Sillanmaki, L., Ristkari, T., Tamminen, T., Moilanen, I., Piha, J., & Almqvist, F. (2009). Childhood Bullying Behavior and Later Psychiatric Hospital and Psychopharmacologic Treatment: Findings From the Finnish 1981 Birth Cohort Study Archives of General Psychiatry, 66 (9), 1005-1012 DOI: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.122

    Vreeman, R., & Carroll, A. (2007). A Systematic Review of School-Based Interventions to Prevent Bullying Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 161 (1), 78-88 DOI: 10.1001/archpedi.161.1.78

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