This has been the subject of discussion, policy development and conferences in recent months so I thought I would take some time to reflect on what was being asked and what was being said on these issues. I was genuinely surprised at the lack of knowledge on the Equality Act and on Protected Characteristics – but more on them later!
Probably the best place to start would be with prejudice – to ‘pre-judge’
2. Any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favourable or unfavourable.
So, everyone can be and is likely to have some prejudices – some things we have favourable views towards and some less so. When we act on this prejudice and treat people less favourably, we are discriminating.
Bullying, as has been covered in many of these blogs, is a mixture of behaviour and impact that affect a person’s capacity to feel in control of themselves. This is what we term as their sense of ‘agency’. Bullying takes place in the context of relationships; it is behaviour that can make people feel hurt, threatened, frightened and left out.
When this behaviour is motivated by prejudice, we are talking about prejudice-based bullying.
Prejudice will be based on a personal characteristic or a group that someone either belongs to or people believe they belong to or identify with. So what might these characteristics be? Their gender? Are they gay? Is it their religion? Do they have a disability? Or is it how they look or what they wear? It can be any of these and more.
So why are some personal characteristics mentioned more than others?
Some personal characteristics are protected within the law – the reason for this is to address the imbalance – to address the years of unfavourable treatment experienced by some groups over the years
The experience of women, of LGBT people, of black people or of people with a disability, has shown that they have received less favourable treatment in many ways over the years – in terms of being picked on, excluded and not having equal access to employment and education. This was initially responded to through legislation such the Race Relations Act 1976, that ‘outlawed discrimination’ or the Equal Pay Act 1970, that was intended to address the less favourable treatment of women in the workplace. Legislation such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, was also intended to address discrimination on gender and married status. These Acts were needed specifically because of the imbalance and the unfair treatment these groups were clearly receiving.
This has evolved and led to the Equality Act 2010 which is designed to protect people from discrimination in the workplace and the wider community such as in Education or as a consumer. This Act sets out that it is unlawful to discriminate against a person due to the following personal characteristics -
- being or becoming a transsexual person
- being married or in a civil partnership
- being pregnant or having a child
- race including colour, nationality, ethnic or national origin
- religion, belief or lack of religion/belief
- sexual orientation
Based on the historical prejudice and discrimination experienced by people who have these, or are perceived to have these characteristics, they now warrant special protection under the law to address the inequality they experienced. These characteristics are protected and as such are referred to as The Protected Characteristics. Age and being married do not apply in Education.
Public examples of this have been highlighted in the media such as cases where people who refuse a service like a hotel room to same sex couples or build new schools that are inaccessible to wheelchairs, will be in breach of the Equality Act.
I get asked a lot why red hair, wearing glasses or being tall or overweight isn’t a protected characteristic too, people experience bullying for these reasons also. One of the most common reasons young people cite for bullying is personal appearance –that could be related to the music they like or the income of their parents.
The answer to this is that while people do get picked on and excluded for a variety of reasons, the groups protected under law have clear historical evidence of societal and cultural exclusion and less favourable treatment. It may sound a little glib – but once all of the tall people get together and can reflect on and evidence years of collective exclusion, not getting work, missing out on promotion, being made to take only certain lessons at school like home economics, receiving abuse or suffering violence and intimidation on a collective basis ; then that too may become a legally protected characteristic.
This does not in any way mean that the bullying of a person because of the way they look is less serious or not as important as bullying based on a protected characteristic. The protected characteristics are not designed to create a hierarchy but to help address the imbalance experienced by certain groups. We know from our work that children and young people who are disabled, who are or are perceived to be LGB or T can experience bullying more frequently than other groups – this just means we need to be aware of and be able to challenge what values and prejudice lies behind this behaviour.
We also know that children and young people bully others because they don’t get on or they don’t like each other – we sometimes forget the interpersonal elements of bullying situations. You might not like a person who is gay or a different faith from you but that is not the reason you dislike them – a person is cable of disliking someone and being mean about them without using a personal characteristic, protected or not, as the topic for their insult or behaviour. There is a difference between ‘I can’t stand him he is a pain and he talks rubbish’ and ‘I can’t stand him, he’s a black (insert whatever word/insult here)’. The latter is a clear example of a prejudice-based statement based on someone’s race or ethnicity.
When respectme helps organisations develop policy and deliver our training we cover prejudice-based bullying and always list characteristics that go beyond those in the Equality Act. Research has informed us that where polices are explicit about what they mean by prejudice-based bullying, where we name specific behaviour they find unacceptable – adults and young people feel more confident to challenge these prejudices and behaviour .
Policies that don’t mention things like homophobia, disability, race or even socio economic status are linked to environments where adults are unsure about challenging certain behaviour and language. This explicit commitment to equality and challenging inequality is clearly linked to better practice in dealing with and preventing prejudiced-based bullying.
Schools, services or clubs that are clear that they will challenge homophobia, that they will challenge bullying based on disability, race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, transgender status, religion and belief, socio economic status, appearance, if children are Looked After, are young carers or are refugees or their families are asylum seekers, will be creating environments that value difference and set out clear expectations about what behaviour is acceptable and what is not. Adults can then be held accountable to this as can children and young people.
This though presents a further challenge for the grown-ups. Are you confident to challenge prejudice? All prejudices or just the ones you object to? Confidently challenging some prejudice will be easy for many people – our own values and those of our chosen profession are compatible and we have the knowledge and passion to challenge and educate. Some of us need to get better informed on some areas – help is available form a range of agencies if you want to learn more about asylum seekers or migrants, about transgender people or a particular disability.
We normally learn more about things when we need to. When we are presented with behaviour or attitudes we don’t know much about, we go and find out about the issue to be better informed – the desire to do this is underpinned by values of fairness and equality. So what about the people whose personal values are perhaps not as ‘in-step’ as others?
You may well work or have worked beside someone who is misogynistic, who says racist things, is sectarian perhaps and this only appears on nights out or in the staff room or on social media.
I do find myself saying to colleagues that we are not the thought police – we cannot tell people what to think or that they are not allowed an opinion – what we can do is hold people accountable to the legal and ethical boundaries of their role or profession. The reality is if a person is even a little prejudiced towards things like equal marriage, Syrian Refugees or women being as good as men at their job - this will be evident in how they challenge these prejudices. If adults have these prejudices they will not effectively challenge behaviour because it conflicts with their values.
Our values underpin what we do and they will always make themselves evident – some people are good at telling you what their values are at interviews but not so good at showing these when they hear certain language. They will say thing like ‘You are not allowed to say things like that here’ or ‘someone might find that offensive’ or actually say and do nothing because they agree with what is being said. When prejudiced language or bullying challenges your values – you will challenge it with passion and clarity, and people will believe you.
Inequality is a huge issue for society – we are addressing historical and cultural issues and responsibility for this rests with people at all levels – not just those who work with our children and young people.
So what can I do?
While these are huge cultural issues we can, as individuals and organisations, give children and young people a better experience, a different experience that values them, one that challenges inequality and involves them in setting the culture and ethos in places they go. When some of us talk about equality; we talk about treating everyone the same or the need to. For me, as a practitioner equality has always meant that I have a duty to challenge inequality.
The training I received helped me view my role as someone who is, for example, anti-racist – not simply ‘not racist’. I commit to challenging racism and racist language. I will challenge homophobia or practices that promote gender inequality and so on. This is what we can all do. On my shift, in my classroom, I will challenge prejudice and value individuals. The walls in our club or class, the activities we do, will clearly value diversity and we will learn about difference and respect.
We won’t achieve this by starting off from a point where we treat everyone the same – our goal is to achieve equity first and we need to address the imbalance -
Creating environments such as these and role modelling how to challenge prejudice and promote what makes people different, and to learn to accept this, is exactly what we sign up for if we work with or even have children.