I officiate lots of basketball games these days, all around Eastern Switzerland. Switzerland is a beautiful country, famous for its nature, chocolate, and neutrality. It possesses top notch public transportation, healthcare, and educational systems. It’s a country with highest or second-highest, depending on the year the data is collected, GDP per capita in the world. That still doesn’t make it immune to discrimination, something that this country still has long way to go to overcome. While officiating a basketball game in a high-school gym in a town called Frauenfeld, looking for officials’ locker room, one writing on the bathroom door that I ran into caught my eye.
If German language is not your strong suit, what it says on the photo is “restroom for the retarded.”
Although it really caught me off guard, when I thought about it, I realized that it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Not for this country. After getting married and moving to Switzerland, I was repeatedly denied job opportunities on the grounds of being a foreigner, though I possessed valid employment permit. Foreigners in Switzerland are known, deservingly so or not, to be not as hard-working as Swiss people, and of course for their less than perfect German proficiency. Sometimes I wouldn’t even make it through the door of temporärbüro (governmental agencies set up to help people find temp jobs) before I was told that I should turn around, as they don’t have jobs for non-German-speaking ausländer (foreigner). My German level at the time was basic. When I complained about it saying that it was blatant discrimination, the response I got was that I am more than welcome to go back where I came from if I didn’t like the way I was being treated. In addition to this, my two daughters, even though born in Switzerland and German is their native language, cannot legally obtain Swiss citizenship. The reason- their father is not a Swiss citizen. They will have to live in Switzerland for certain amount of time (this amount is different in every kanton), until they can apply for citizenship on their own. Until then, they are guests in the country they were born, and spent almost every day of their life in.
Being discriminated against is never fun. However, some of it may be in human nature. Our perceptual system is designed to use partial information to arrive at the best guess solution to a problem which is correct most of the time. The few errors we may experience are more than compensated for by a feature of our perceptual system that is essential for our survival- its great speed even when faced with incomplete information (Goldstein, 2011). This not only suggests that stereotyping and discrimination are mental shortcuts created to make our lives easier, and therefore significant contributors to our everyday psychological and social lives, but the argument can be made that these behaviors were valuable survival tools throughout human evolution; tools that lead humans past natural selection and helped us evolve into the species we are today. Hence, they must be inscribed deep in our genetic code, along with other instincts successfully used by our ancestors in order to survive (and to do so long enough to reproduce). In hunter-gatherer society ability to discriminate between different groups of people, even if it meant using stereotyping as a tool to get us to quick enough and accurate enough decision on whether or not someone from a particular group presents potential danger to our group, sometimes meant a difference between life and death.
What has helped us in the past is making things much worse in the present though. Some cultures are much more aware of existence of stereotyping and discrimination than others. Although people in America are far from satisfied with their current situation regarding this issue, they are obviously light years ahead of most others, including Switzerland. It is still very much ok and legal to discriminate here; when in fact it’s wrong, ignorant, and disrespectful, and it has negative effects on psyche of people affected by it.
Even though it looks like we are far removed from period when stereotyping and discrimination were useful to us, years that we spent living in civilized society are insignificant when it comes to evolution, whose significance factor is measured by thousands, maybe tens of thousands of years. This is approximately how long it would take for those traits, that were clearly enforced by natural selection, to be altered or completely erased. Until that happens (if ever), the least we can do is treat each other with respect. Whatever our skin color, gender, or intelligence level. How about just all being humans? That’s certainly how I’m raising my children to be.
Goldstein, B.E. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience. (3rd Edition). Wadsworth, Inc.