Blog: Karen Inanna

Why we need new ways of breaking down barriers between our in-groups and out-groups

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I grew up living in a caravan. Also, my caravan was parked in the car park of my private international school. We lived there for a while.

I was Jewish. Also, we lived in the Middle East and all of my friends were Muslim.

My grandma was in the Hitler Youth as a teenager and until her passing held antisemitic views. Also, she loved her Jewish grandchildren dearly.

We moved onto an East London council estate, eight of us squeezed into a tiny two-bed flat. Also, at the same time, I went to a private boarding school and one of my best friends was the granddaughter of a lady.

A lot of my holidays were spent working underage in a chippy to help pay for my school uniform. Also, I would find a weekend here or there to escape on holiday to my friends’ houses, to enjoy their pools, or even once, to their Monaco summer house to mix with the rich and famous on their super-yachts.

Someone in my close family claimed to be a universalist, accepting of all religions and cultures. They married one Filipino lady and one German lady and are the most well-travelled person I know. Also they claimed to vote for the BNP.

This person claimed to be a healer, even the messiah at one point. Also, they abused our family, daily.

While I was away at boarding school, my sisters ran away from home, failed their exams, became homeless. One fell pregnant as a teenager and both fell into abusive relationships. Also, they are the most inspiring and powerful women I know.

Some of my friends at boarding school had incredible wealth. Also, some had the worst mental health issues I have come across. One of my close friends, on a normal school day, had a psychotic breakdown.

What has this taught me? Why do programmes like Roots, which pairs young people from schools within the state and independent sectors, matter?

People don’t always fit into simple categories. Social identity theory shows us that humans form in-groups and out-groups. People we identify with ourselves are our in-group and those who we perceive to be different are in the out-group. The Roots Programme offers an opportunity to become aware of these categories and start to consciously and actively re-shape them. It offers an opportunity to challenge our assumptions about the “other” while recognising and addressing the shared problems we face as a society. Abuse, trauma and mental ill health are perpetrated and experienced by people across class, wealth, ethnic and religious spectrums.

As our world changes more rapidly as a consequence of climate change, war and economic migration, a need for people to re-shape their in-groups is becoming more urgent. Without this, we risk increased polarisation, division and massive inequality, not only between communities but also within ourselves. We are pulled between the different parts of our complex identities – like my own – that don’t fit the traditional categories.

Not only is this important for our future but also for the present. My own experiences highlighted to me the massive division and conceptions that young people from state and private schools have about each other, and the in-group/out-group dynamics that are strongly at play.

When I started dating a boy from a state school, private school peers laughed and asked: “Why are you wasting time with a peasant?” Before you think this no longer happens, I have been in two conversations in the last two months where this and more derogatory language was used.

On the other side, when I shifted from state to private, I lost all my state school friends. They perceived that I left because I thought I was better than them. When I dated people from state schools, they would be congratulated by their state school peers for dating a private school girl and were asked how big my house was. The actual reality was, I lived on a council estate in much poorer, cramped housing than any of them did.

 I felt shame about my sisters’ situation and would not let them visit me at my private school

For a person of colour, things were much worse. With a thick Birmingham accent, Jamaican heritage and a vibrant personality, my best friend stood no chance of ever really fitting into private school categories. She was branded the 4Bs (big, Black, Birmingham, bitch). To this day, the trauma of what she experienced still affects her.

Back then, with such limited categories and so desperately wanting to fit in, I felt shame about my sisters’ situation and would not let them visit me at my private school. I was fearful of rejection by peers. Now I have a greater critical understanding of social identity and comprehend the restrictiveness of in-groups and out-group categories. For example, I see my sisters in a completely new light, for the incredibly strong and powerful women that they are.

If I could wish one thing for myself, it would have been for my school community to offer me, and other chameleons like me who did not fit into one accepted, standardised mould, opportunities to be seen and celebrated for the skills and insights that living with complex identities provided us with. For all the people in all my different worlds, I would wish for them to be more connected, curious and compassionate about each other.

This would have made my journey to acceptance of myself a heck of a lot less turbulent, and the journey of my peers into the incredibly diverse real world a lot less uncomfortable and much more inclusive. If only given the chance, they could have found unexpected connections and allies in those who appear to be an “other”, reconstructing their in-group.

This is the opportunity Roots offers – to step into someone else’s life, to connect and find allies in seemingly unlikely places and ultimately re-form our in-groups. This is how we can all find wider belonging in the UK and in the world. This is how we can walk into unfamiliar spaces without fear, trusting that we can find connection and belonging there.

To join or find out more about our youth or adult programmes, please visit our website, email us at or find us on Twitter @ProgrammeRoots

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