Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

What We Believe Is What We Do

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Early Childhood

What We Believe Is What We Do

Article excerpt

It is normal human behaviour to join groups. Part of our identity as human beings is tied up in the groups to which we belong. We remain in these groups because they make us feel good about who we are. We define people outside our group as different from us. Our discomfort with that difference is a normal human reaction to a person who is a member of a `not us' group (Turner & Louis, 1996). What we, as humans, do with that discomfort varies. What professionals working with children and families do with that discomfort is crucial because it is this which influences the way they do their job. This paper discusses different reactions to this `not us' discomfort in relation to three types of difference commonly found in Australian society: the differences associated with being Aboriginal, with being migrants from non-English speaking backgrounds, and with having a disability. The paper shows how each reaction to these differences leads to particular kinds of service delivery. What we believe is what we do.

Removing difference through exclusion

One reaction to the discomfort produced by exposure to `not us' groups is to ensure that the exposure doesn't happen again. Excluding those who are different from everyday life in a community results in people having no contact with particular forms of difference. When contact does occur, people are forced into examining their ideas about difference, and this can be a threatening or confusing experience (Tierney, 1993; Turner & Louis, 1996). When humans are placed in this type of stressful situation they often try to deal with that stress by demonstrating to themselves that they are more powerful, and in control. They turn the people who have introduced the challenge into their lives into something less than human in order to demonstrate their own superiority. For example, Ross Lightfoot, Western Australia Member in the Senate, has said:

   Aboriginal people in their native state were the lowest colour on the
   civilisation spectrum.

   (Lightfoot, 1997)

This belief that Aboriginal people are subhuman led in the past to such practices as shooting Aborigines on sight (Rowley, 1970). Aborigines were perceived as a primitive form of humanity, some kind of left-over form of the human species from our evolutionary past (Jones, 1996).

In the field of disability, this fear turned itself into a belief that people with disabilities were subhuman. They were animals, and institutions became prisons whose function was to protect the rest of society from the menace within. Goddard (1915 in Wolfensberger, 1975, p. 34) identified people with disabilities as a menace and a cause of many social problems of the time. Given that people with disabilities were perceived this way, it was only a small step to propose a solution similar to that used by Hitler nearly 150 years later:

   I do not think that, to prevent the propagation of this class (idiots and
   imbeciles) it is necessary to kill them off or to resort to the knife; but
   if it is necessary it should be done.

   (Johnson, 1901, in Wolfensberger, 1975, p. 37)

Dealing with difference by excluding those who are different continues to operate today. For example, it is not uncommon for migrants to gather together in enclaves. Pauline Hanson referred to this tendency in her maiden speech to Parliament (1996):

   I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. Between 1984 and
   1995, 40% of all migrants coming into this country were of Asian origin.
   They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not
   assimilate.

Enclaves provide residents with a sense of security as they are surrounded by people who are similar to them (White, 1988; Yee, 1996). Living in enclaves enables people to behave in ways that they see as appropriate, based on their home cultural practices. Despite the contribution ethnic enclaves make to the local economy, they are often perceived in negative ways by those living outside them. …

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