I’m Prejudiced. Are You?


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.

With thanks to www.armstrongeconomics.com for image.
With thanks to www.armstrongeconomics.com for image.

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.

Thanks to mychopper.ro for the image
Thanks to mychopper.ro for the image

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


11 Responses

  1. Ian Mathie
    | Reply

    Sure I have prejudices, like everybody else,but most of them are so mild there more matters of preference. I grew up in a multi cultural world, starting my education as the only white child in an African mission school. Our house had a constant stream of visitors of many nationalities, it was like the foyer of the United Nations building. Because of my Dad’s job we moved to different countries and had to fit in with their cultures, so diversity became normal, And I don’t mind foreigners living and working in my country as long as they obey our laws, pay their taxes, and join in without trying to change our culture.

    Only in one matter do I have a strong prejudice: I hate extremism, in any form. I get mildly irritated by people who try and push their political views onto me, but in most cases I can simply turn away and leave them spouting their doctrine into thin air. With extremists, however, I utterly reject their approach and am tempted to respond. It’s useless, of course, because they all have closed ears, that’s part of extremism. So most of the time my rejection results in little more than saying I disagree and leaving them to it.

    This poses a major dilemma for it leaves the field clear for the extremists to push their creed. This is exactly what happened in Gerrmany in the 1930s when National Socialism was on the rise. The majority of mild mannered, decent citizens simply closed their ears and let the fanatics get on with it. But the fanatics gained ground and before the general population realised that they were in a trap, the Nazis had taken over and everyone was swept up in their coercive doctrine. Then it was do or die, join in or get shipped off to a concentration/extermination camp especially if you belonged to the wrong group.

    The same is happening today with fundamental Islam, and whether we like it or not, it’s spreading. Decent, peace loving muslims reject this foul doctrine, but that does nothing to stop it in its tracks. They, as often as not, are victims to its cruelty along with all others who are considered infidels.

    So the current dilemma is what can anyone do to stop the rot whilst still respecting the right of the fanatics to hold their extreme views? Indeed, should we respect that as a right?

    So having a prejudice is one thing, what one does about it is entirely another matter.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hello Ian,

      Your comments reminded me of the Edmund Burke quote that I often wrote on the board for my Kazakh students, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing.” Then we’d have a discussion. The years of Soviet repression were so very evident, for the idea that one person could stand up in difference was just not thinkable.

      I take my task as one of engaging “extremists” in dialogue. Of course, they don’t consider themselves extremists; they believe they have the handle on Truth. And, I live in a very isolated part of the country; so, this is much easier said than done. But the challenge is now on my radar.

      I choose to believe that having difficult conversations will be vital to us all surviving this period we seem to be falling into. Learning how to hold fast to the values we cherish, while truly hearing the other with compassion, is a challenge.

      Radical fundamentalists have thrived in all eras; they are not new. I grew up with a few of them. What is new, and scary, is that so many average Joes are falling into step with them. It’s too easy to just think we can round them all up and keep them contained somewhere. Where? They are the ones I want to engage with.

      Edmund Burke also said, “He that struggles with us strengthens our nerves, and sharpens our skill. Our antagonist is our helper.”

      Worth taking a stab, don’t you think?

      • Ian Mathie
        | Reply

        I agree entirely that we have to counter these extremists, as evidenced by what happened in Germany, in China with the rise of Mao, and in Iran with the rise of the Ayatollahs. The question is how to do it.
        With the current jihadist problem it sadly looks as if a violent process is the only option as they are not open to any form of dialogue or discussion. They don’t believe in persuasion, they demand outright obedience and domination. That limits the options and now makes it a matter of timing.
        So when and how do we respond? Their nerve centre is already diffused and spread through subject populations, but their influence is spreading faster every day, fueled by real and manufactured discontent.

        • Janet Givens
          | Reply

          I agree, Ian, if your focus is world-wide. I’m looking closer to home these days. My own backyard, so to speak. Just like on airplanes these days, when they tell you to get to know the person in the seat next to you (in case their shoe holds a bomb, I guess).

          It’s all local for me. How well do we really know our neighbors, the people we interact with on a regular basis? The people just outside our comfort zone, those who are different from us? It’s so easy (and understandable) to prefer to mingle with those of like minds and hearts. I’m calling for a movement to start talking to those people who are different, because they are different. Just talking. Finding the humanity in them and connecting through that.

          I KNOW how my bigoted mother-in-law of decades passed reacted when an African-American couple moved into her neighborhood and grew some of the most beautiful roses she’d ever seen. Then the husband taught her how he did it. She was confused for a few years, but I KNOW, by the end of her life, she’d never again refer to “those people” as she once did.

          Too idealistic? I believe we don’t have a choice. Not if we want our grandchildren to be able to look back from their front porch rockers some day and ponder the ways of the world anew.

          But I’m getting off topic here, much as I love to go off topic with you. 🙂

          • Ian Mathie

            It saddens me when you say you are told to get to know the person next to you on a plane in case their shoe holds a bomb. This is nothing less than sponsored prejudice! Why not get to know them in case they’re a decent person? Why the assumption that they may be evil? This is where extremism begins to win, by sowing distrust and doubt, the very seeds of terror.

            Sherif et al, working back in the 1960s, demonstrated that prejudice is only effectively overcome when faced directly. Your ma-in-law proved their point when she changed her tune because she came face to face with her prejudice, with no means of avoiding the truth. Sadly, in many cases this is not practical and prejudice can be exacerbated by even the slightest wrong step. This appears to be part of the current problem that has erupted with policemen shooting blacks with no apparent reason. The backlash is now increasing prejudices exponentially.

  2. Sharon Lippincott
    | Reply

    Enlightening post Janet. This took some work to write!

    My understanding of prejudice was mixed. Growing up in New Mexico, we had Indians and hispanic people referred to variously as Spanish and Mexican. Around Santa Fe they were mostly Spanish and I’ve only recently learned that their ancestors were indeed from Spain, though most intermarried with Indians. Mexicas were “lower in class” than the Spanish.

    Within that context, I recall my mother (who grew up around construction camps) claiming that “There are lots of Mexicans I’d rather have for neighbors than white people I could mention.” AHA! We’re not prejudiced, I thought.

    Somewhere in the back of my mind this statement jangled against the prohibition against marrying or even dating Catholics, Jews, Mormons or any other off-beat religion or race. “It’s okay to be friends with them, it just doesn’t work to marry them.” On the rare occasion I thought about it, that seemed prejudiced, and it was not a ban I personally held. In fact, I married a Quaker whose maternal roots were Jewish.

    Then I got to college and wrote a paper for cultural anthropology on the Tewa Indians, who inhabitied the pueblo closest to us. “What sort of prejudice do they face?” a student asked after my oral presentation.

    “Not much.”

    Gottcha! Richard Kluckhohn, son of Clyde and Dorothy, grew up among the Navahos as his parents extensively studied them. He set me straight in short order.

    Today I see a difference between stereotypes and prejudice, though the line is thin. I see stereotypes as a necessary tool for making sense of the world. But I still “see” black folks and white. I see traces of Asian or middle eastern ancestry. My gaydar kicks in now and then. I’m aware of the existence of prejudice in the wider world. My own prejudices may run to people who look like “me” but hold different opinions.

    It’s still there. Probably always will be. Awareness helps us transcend the barriers it creates.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      You were a student with Richard Kluckholn? I’m super impressed. (jealous?) I’m so glad you wrote. We who are privileged to have been born into the “ruling class,” do not learn the cues that those in “disadvantaged” groups must learn to survive. Hence, we just don’t see what is often right in front of us. Awareness is always a good place to start.

      I’m glad you mentioned stereotypes. It’s one of the “biases” I’m going to cover over the next few weeks (I hope; I actually haven’t written them yet). And you are so right: we need to stereotype, to discriminate, to judge. Imagine living a life where we had to make a new decision for each step we took? Exhausting.

      Thanks for checking in here. I’ve missed you.

  3. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    Wow, Janet! This is a terrific post. You and I have many prejudices in common, especially motorcycles, one particular person who shall not be named, and anyone who supports that person. There are of course many others, like the “cream of the crop” students who spend their college years living nearby and sit on the roofs of their fraternity houses drinking beer. Yes, they occasionally fall and get badly hurt.
    I try desperately not to judge people, but it’s kind of one of those automatic things our brains do. I often catch myself but other times I’m beyond saving, especially when it comes to youth.

    I lived in a very prejudiced house hold as a kid. My father especially hated blacks, Jews, Italians, gays, lesbians, and a host of others I can’t even remember now. I fought him all the way especially when I got into high school and college by gathering friends from those categories trying to prove him wrong. Of course, it didn’t work. I hated him for that among other things.

    Your post is very thought provoking and I love that I found out that I too am prejudiced and though it’s not against any ethnic group, religion or skin color, I probably have a whole list of others like those young things. Am I jealous? Well maybe, but I am enjoying my elder hood. living as long as I has been a “Privilege.”

  4. […] I’m Prejudiced. Are You? […]

  5. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Oh Joan, I don’t know how I missed your comment. Thank you for adding your thoughts here. And yes, prejudice hits us all. As does stereotyping and typecasting, and needing to find explanations for things we don’t understand — even if those explanations defy logic. But, as you also know well, awareness is helpful. Just being aware of what our prejudices are, knowing they are generally devoid of facts, we can make a choice to keep them or discard them. I have a different reaction, these last many years, when I see a large collection of motorcycles. I’m actually eager to talk to them, curious to see what I’ll learn. It’s only when they start up those motors that I go into “OMG” mode. Someday I’ll have the chance to ask, “Why do you DO that? What’s the deal with all the noise?” Someday. Hugs.

  6. […] this a strange new idea for you? Given my grade-school lesson on prejudice that I wrote about two years ago (we’re all prejudiced; the trick is to be aware of it), I […]

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