Jeans Disgrace

Quite some years ago I was conducting a training in North Germany for social and youth workers. We were immersed in a quite lovely venue amidst the thick Northern forests, and although I did not tell anybody somehow they discovered it was my birthday and ended up being warmly rewarded with a keg of beer from the local brewery of a nearby village. It was a 3-day training on social service and discrimination, and the purpose was to identify how in-groups and out-groups are at times artificially created, even unintentionally and even by the same youth and social workers who are meant to have antibodies for this kind of things. Upon exploring how categorisation happens automatically in a person’s mind (as well as in groups). The group has reached the conclusion that discrimination based on race, ethnicity, culture and faith was indeed a challenge in the process of integration, and the lack of will of these people to integrate was part of the problem. As a trainer I took this moment as an inspiration to tell them about self-fulfilling prophecies, which I often witnessed in my city, that is when two groups perceive each other as diverse and are convinced that they mean harm to each other and therefore behave accordingly when they come in contact, and that is either defensive or, quite often, aggressively, because of expecting aggression from the other group. 

A debate spurred among the participants and myself. Some were denying that this was even possible, and indeed some of the beneficiaries of the social services are more inclined to criminal and disrespectful behaviour because of their social and economic condition, or conditioned by the patriarchal and discriminatory cultural values and expected behaviours, in case of migrants or refugees, as well as receivers of a poorer education.

That debate was going nowhere and getting quite polarised and with quite high tones, therefore decided to do something and to tell them only at the end of our training day, informing them we should continue with the programme and tackle group dynamics, in my mind restructuring those two sessions with a lot more plenary discussions. What I did not tell them was that I was going to discriminate people wearing jeans, out of 20 participants about 8 were wearing jeans. So everytime I asked the group a question and a person wearing jeans raised a hand I made them speak last, giving preference to those not wearing jeans, practically never reacting to their comments or dismissing them, while praising the questions and comments of the people who did not wear jeans. After the coffee break, as we returned to the plenary I noticed, as expected, that those wearing jeans were all sitting together on one side of the room, their non-verbal language and postures either aggressive or defensive, while non-jeans wearers seemed visibility feeling better and much more relaxed.

I continued my discriminatory behaviour, and noticed something interesting and again expected, those wearing jeans started to stand up for each other, disagreeing with me, while non-jeans wearers tended to defend me and find more arguments that I was right. At that point I stopped our sessions and asked them to look back and what has happened in the last two hours, of course they had not realised until I told them that the discriminatory element was jeans, and that I was the authority who initiated that discrimination, de-facto creating a sub-group or sub-culture if you want, who not knowing why came together as a group feeling under threat and stood up for each other and shared a mutual sense of belonging as victims of the injustice inflicted by the trainer. While the others reflected on how smart and better they felt about themselves, feeling even encouraged and supported to voice out how smarter or better they were about the other group. Now, I braved myself to do this exercise because it was not the first time we worked together with this group and knew them personally quite well to be able to dare, something I would not do with a new group. Of course that finding left quite a few emotions hanging in the air, the artificial jeans groups dealing with anger and frustration and the non-jeans wearers dealing with shame and guilt, it was a good time to steam out as well as to make some team rebuilding, voice out the negative emotions and return to the group’s constructive spirit.

The discussion was followed was truly beautiful and insightful, once confronted with unequal treatment and discriminatory behaviours, realising that some of the youth and social services delivery might actually reinforce that which they are fighting, attributing people to groups which might be totally random, subjective and not necessarily the groups where they would place themselves.

As I learnt upon returning home, when I was contacted by my colleagues in Germany to evaluate the training, the group decided to apply for funding at the regional administration to undergo a training for coaches, and to balance their service delivery of training, homecare and support, consulting, with a tailored and individual support system with the methodology of coaching, precisely to value the individual and individual needs rather than one measure-fits-all. A revolutionary change for those villages and small towns used to the same way of delivering social and youth services for decades in a categorised fashion to start this individual approach, true, it affects just a few villages, however, where is the starting point of any significant change?

By the way, few years have passed since then, and I am told one of those participants opened a jeans store.

Published by Lorenzo Nava

Consultant, Trainer and Coach, on participatory learning processes, experiential learning dynamics, non formal education and NLP certified practitioner

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