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Blasting Bias

Antonya Gonzalez, a PhD student studying developmental psychology at UBC, conducted a study on reducing racial bias in children with the help of stories. Her goal was to try to change children’s perceptions of racial out-groups — people who don't look like them.

“Even as early as age five or six, children have an unconscious race bias wherein they prefer their in-group. They also often have biases against stigmatized racial groups within their society,” said Gonzalez.

In the control group, children heard stories about positive white exemplars. In the experimental condition, they heard stories about positive black exemplars. The study found that children aged nine through twelve, after hearing a story about positive black exemplars, did not unconsciously show a preference for either racial group, at least temporarily. Gonzalez is currently investigating the long-term effects to see just how long the effects last.

“We live in a society and a community where there is a lot of tension felt by different social groups, so that was something that I sought to investigate and to try to reduce those tensions and biases, especially in children,” she said.

Gonzalez is just one of many academics studying issues of diversity at UBC. Across campus at the Peter A. Allard School of Law, Dr. Isabel Grant — professor and co-director for the Centre for Feminist Legal Studies — has conducted significant research on consent and reforming sexual assault law for mentally disabled individuals.

Her research showed that women with mental disabilities face difficulties at every stage of the criminal justice system. In her paper, “Sexual Assault and the Meaning of Power and Authority for Women with Mental Disabilities,” written with Janine Benedet, she argues that “existing Criminal Code provisions in Canada are inadequate to address this type of exploitation because courts have consistently failed to recognize that such abuses of power and trust are fundamentally inconsistent with any notion of voluntary consent.” 

Dr. Elizabeth Saewyc has been studying what are called “resilience factors” — things in young people's environments and relationships that help them survive despite discrimination, violence and trauma. She talks of health inequities where for some reason or other, certain social groups have less access to healthcare, don’t take well to the treatments offered to them or don't have the opportunity for achieving the greatest possibility of health for themselves. Social elements often play an important part in determining an individuals’ health.

“You have to think about the groups that aren't always as visible but who experience some of these health issues, and trying to understand what it is like for them. Over the years as well, my clinical practice as a public heath nurse working first with homeless street involved youth, and then with youth involved with pregnancy, recognized the strengths that so many young people have,” she said.

Focusing on the problems, said Saewyc, is not only depressing, but doesn't give one the full picture.

“Many of them are surviving despite incredibly toxic environments and the terrible experiences that they have had,” she said.

Saewyc’s research for her paper, “School-based strategies to reduce suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and discrimination among sexual minority and heterosexual adolescents in Western Canada,” shows that heterosexual boys are less likely to have suicidal thoughts and attempt suicide when their school has long-established, anti-homophobic policies and gay-straight alliances (GSAs).

“We had seen higher rates of suicidal ideation and attempts among LGB teens and through our analyses, we were able to connect that higher suicidality to stigma and discrimination — being bullied and experiencing discrimination because you were gay or because people thought you were gay,” she said.

A solution to reduce the experience of homophobia and bullying was for schools to create inclusive schools and to implement anti-homophobic rules. Another solution was to create GSAs.

“One of the things that we had to recognize was that there was a certain number of youth who identified as heterosexual who also experience discrimination because people think that they are gay or because people are using homophobic bullying, pejorative terms to harass them — not because they are gay, but because being gay or lesbian or bisexual is somehow and by calling someone that, you are insulting them,” said Saewyc.

The research shows that being bullied for whatever reason is extremely harmful to a person's mental health and that a link exists between experiencing that kind of violence, discrimination and rejection, and suicide attempts.

“We thought, ‘What about those straight kids that are perceived to be gay?,’” said Saewyc. So she took a look at the effects of homophobia on straight youth and found that heterosexual boys were less likely to indulge in suicidal ideation if they went to a school with long-established, anti-homophobic policies. 

Saewyc, Gonzalez and Grant are only three researchers at UBC studying issues related to diversity and the social sciences.

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