Debra Allcock Tyler: Change will come through understanding

Overcoming our prejudices is necessary if we are to move forward in difficult times, writes our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

A friend recently treated me to a spa day with a citrus body-wrap treatment. I watched a parade of beautifully turned-out female therapists arrive and trill the names of their clients to take to the treatment rooms. Me? I got a young man who was built like a scrum half and had hands the size of spades. In an admittedly delightful accent he gruffed: "Dobruh? You for Citrooze Bordy Vap?" My heart sank as I squeaked: "Um, yes, that's me."

As he escorted me into the windowless, dimly lit treatment room I was thinking: 'Aaaaargh! You're going into a dark room with a man with hands like shovels." Once I was undressed and lying on the table face down, he began the massage. He did a great job, but when he started on my shoulders and neck I couldn't help but imagine his hands squeezing my throat. When he massaged my scalp I thought about how he could crush it with one hand.

You can imagine my panic when he wrapped me in cellophane! "This is how he could dispose of my body!!" I kept thinking. I lay there for the entire hour bitterly regretting my addiction to Nordic Noir!

Afterwards my friend asked why I hadn't just turned down the male therapist.

Because that would have gone against every single one of my principles, I replied. It would have been like saying I didn't want a male doctor or a female lawyer - I'd be judging by sex, not the ability to do the job.

This reminded me how hard it is to overcome one's prejudices. Thinking "I'm physically weaker than a man - any one of them could easily kill me ..." and dumping him, would have been lumping all men together as potential murderous rapists and would have been wrong, even if tempting and understandable. And thereby hangs a tale. I suspect that many folk who are casually racist, homophobic or misogynistic are often (unknowingly) fearful about something, and that fear drives prejudice - even though that doesn't excuse it.

You might think that you're not any of those things, but it's the same point if you hate bankers, or Tory voters, or footballers, or the hard Labour left, or Donald Trump, or any group or individual you disagree with. It's hard to recognise and harder to accept, but even if you think you have the moral high ground any thinking that excludes and/or demonises others is essentially prejudice.

We in the sector have the opportunity to promote a deeper level of understanding about how people form their prejudices, because we know that writing off a human being or group because of their (in your opinion) "dodgy" views about others is never going to change how they think.

And if you think about it, some of the godawful mess our country is currently in might well be due to some folk looking down on those who don't share their views. You don't see eye to eye with people you're looking down on. So my stressful spa experience was worth every paranoid minute. Because it reminded me how profound change happens. Through understanding. Everyone. Whoever they are. Whatever they believe. Especially now.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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