“WHY don’t you come on in tomorrow?” asked the prospective employer. “I’m sure we can fix you up with a job.” Yvonne hung up the phone, confident that the job was hers. Office work was going to be a nice change of pace from the housekeeping jobs she had done since quitting college.
Arriving for her new job the next day, Yvonne found the woman she had spoken to over the phone and introduced herself. But as the woman again heard Yvonne’s “odd” last name, this time connecting it with her obviously Oriental features, the woman’s jaw dropped. “She nervously hemmed and hawed,” recalls Yvonne, “and finally she told me there was no job available.” But Yvonne knew why it was back to scanning the “help wanted” ads: racial prejudice.
Talk of prejudice understandably makes most of us feel a bit uneasy. Few topics are so controversial—or emotional. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored or shrugged away as if it were someone else’s problem. Bias infects almost every sphere of human relationships. Long-held myths of male superiority sentence many women to low wages and minimal job opportunities. Religious differences fuel violence in Ireland. French-speaking Canadians clash with their English-speaking countrymen. In India, though the caste system is outlawed, caste Hindus refuse to walk on the same side of the street as “Untouchables.” European social levels based on wealth and traditional prestige pit upper classes against commoners. Even in countries such as Brazil, where black and white mingle freely, some observers report an undercurrent of racial hostility.
Exaggerated cultural pride erects barriers even among members of the same race, as illustrated by the experience of Kalu and Dupe. Though both native Nigerians, Dupe’s mother (of the Yoruba tribe) forbade her to marry someone from the Igbo tribe. Kalu’s father likewise rejected Dupe, saying: “If you marry a Yoruba girl, do not consider yourself my son.”
Prejudice is therefore more than an issue of race or a conflict of black versus white. It is a seemingly universal reaction to different languages, cultures and social levels. And whether erupting into violence or simmering below the boiling point, prejudice can have painful consequences: poverty, harassment, loss of human dignity for its victims, and pangs of guilt and a troubled conscience for a majority of its perpetrators. Where prejudice exists, so too does a climate of fear, uncertainty and anxiety. Whole areas are declared off limits because of racial tension. Potential friendships are poisoned by needless distrust and misunderstanding.
Prejudice, therefore, truly is “everyone’s problem.” But from where does prejudice come? Why have man’s best efforts to eradicate it failed? In order to gain some insight into these questions, let us focus on a widespread form of prejudice: racial bias.