Let’s start here, with a 20-question quiz from understandingprejudice.org to test your understanding of prejudice and discrimination. Just to give you an idea, here’s Question 21 (optional):
Imagine you’re having a private, late-night conversation with a new acquaintance about why there are so many Black professional athletes. The person you are talking to, who happens to be a White male college student, surprises you by making the racist and groundless assertion that “It is a proven fact that Blacks are not as developed intellectually as Whites, but over the years have genetically become better athletes.”
Think for a moment about how you would react. What would you say to this person?
The quiz is the product of research undertaken at Wesleyan University under the direction of Professor Scott Plous with funding and support from McGraw-Hill, Barnes & Noble, the National Science Foundation, and others. They encourage as many folks to take this fairly brief survey as possible. And while they say it takes 20 minutes, it took me about five. Really; the questions don’t need a lot of thought.
Now, back to our regularly scheduled (and written) post: I’m Prejudiced. Are You?
Sometime in grade school, I learned I was a prejudiced person. My teacher offered the class a lesson specifically on prejudice and asked us all to think of some group of people we did not like. Or a group we thought were dangerous. Then she had us write our answer on our paper, followed by a discussion.
If you were given that assignment, what would you write? We’ll come back to this.
Is there a group of people that shares a particular religion, nationality, sexual orientation, profession, income level, or political party that you try to stay away from. We won’t get into your reasons here. Just think of a group.
There are so many groups to choose from these days: refugees, immigrants, Muslims, Texans, the list goes on. You get my point.
Here’s how I answered that question nearly sixty years ago.
I grew up in the metropolitan New York area, outside of Newark, New Jersey in the late 50s and early 60s. The majority of my classmates and friends were Negro back then. It was before Black or African-American became common.
School desegregation, Brown v Board of Education, was in the news. Then sit-downs at Woolworth’s lunch counter, a march to Selma, firehoses, dogs, burning buses. It all seemed very far away to me. Segregation, separate-but-equal, was a non-issue in my northern New Jersey school and city.
How many white faces there were compared to how many black faces? I not only didn’t know; I never thought about it. I cannot think of a single person for whom this mattered. Certainly none of my friends.
My teacher that year spent time on the topic of prejudice, emphasizing that it was a judgment we made in the absence of facts. And, that as we identified our prejudices, we needed to seek out the facts to substantiate them, or change our view. But first we had to identify them.
Prejudice is pre-judging, making a decision about a person or group of people without sufficient knowledge. Prejudicial thinking is frequently based on stereotypes.
A stereotype is an oversimplified generalization about a person or group of people without regard for individual differences.
And, as the teacher expected, we were all prejudiced against some group. “What was yours?”she asked us.
Mine was easy.
Motorcycle riders. And the black leather that they wore.
For others it was something else: a particular religion none of us understood, folks with a lot of money. None of us knew anyone with “lots of money,” so that was a common prejudice. And I recall many of the boys picked “the girls.” But “race” was not an issue. We knew each other too well.
Our teacher didn’t try to talk any of us out of our prejudices. The point of the lesson as I recall was that prejudice was not reserved for only southerners or racists, as we were hearing in the news. It was something everyone engaged in, at one time or another. It was part of being human. And I went on into my adult years believing I had an “acceptable” prejudice, if you will. Certainly an understandable one.
I was rather proud of my prejudice actually. I believed it showed good judgment. I did not like people who rode motorcycles; they were wild, unkempt, crude, and probably mean too. I couldn’t find any “facts” to support my case, but I didn’t need any. I was quite comfortable with my prejudice just as it was, thank you.
Of course, I’d yet to meet anyone who rode a motorcycle.
Fast forward to 2004 when I finally did meet a real, live motorcycle rider who — of course — broke the mold I had cast him in.
That’s all it normally takes you know, to undermine a prejudice:
real life experience.
I found my motorcycle rider to be gentle and kind, funny and smart. Ben Alexander was going to write a book about a motorcycle trip he was planning to take through the south, following the same path his father had taken forty years before, during the waning Jim Crow years. He wanted to ride that route, a second generation black man, and compare experiences. I thought it a beautiful idea.
I realized I had misjudged. I reevaluated my position.
Today, I still don’t like motorcycles. I don’t like how loud they are, especially idling at a traffic light. But I no longer judge their riders en masse.
Today, as I write this post on prejudice, I recognize new ones I’m harboring. I stay away from gun rights zealots; I disdain Tea-Party loyalists, and I certainly keep my distance from anyone lauding the praises of he who shall not be named.
I find I have no interest in getting to know these people, hearing their point of view. Understanding how they might have come to believe the way they do. I just can’t find the energy to give it. Or the curiosity.
And I’m the lesser for it. My country is suffering because of the multiple divides that have formed among us. The “haves” fear the “have nots;” the “have nots” disdain the “haves.” How easy it has become to vilify the opposition, to declare their particular character flaw which (if only they’d improve) keeps us from liking them. To look down our noses at them, to feel superior to them.
We don’t need to like them. But we do need to start understanding, listening, hearing.
I’ll go first.
How about you?
Remember to take the brief quiz above. They need all the subjects they can find.
Next week: A New Look at Bias