The Workings of Prejudice
A researcher asked a man his opinion of a certain ethnic group. “They are moody and quick-tempered,” he replied. “It is in their blood.”
“Have you ever known any . . . personally?” the man was asked.
‘Yes, one. He was our class president in high school.’
‘Did this “class president” fit your image of them?’
“No,” he admitted, “he was calm and pleasant.”
‘Then the “moodiness and quick temper” could not really have been “in his blood,” could they?’
After a pause the man replied: “He was an exception.”
TO BE prejudiced (to “prejudge”) is to judge others without giving them the benefit of a fair trial. A perfect stranger is thus summarily pronounced “lazy,” “devious” or “dangerous” without any evidence, only a preconceived idea. This is because the biased person sees, not individuals, but groups. To him, members of an ethnic group are “all alike,” clones, with no individuality. And as in the example above, the prejudiced one will often defend his bias to the bitter end, even when the facts prove him wrong. As the magazine Psychology Today noted, prejudiced people “tend to notice and remember the ways in which [a] person seems to fit the stereotype, while resisting evidence that contradicts the stereotype.”
Prejudice feeds on itself. People cast into an unfavorable mold so often lose their self-esteem that they actually live up to low expectations. Or what the Bible says at Ecclesiastes 7:7 results: “For mere oppression may make a wise one act crazy.” Victims of oppression can become consumed with resentment. They can become so sensitized to bias that they at times overreact and see prejudice where none really exists. Any person of another race is viewed either with undue suspicion or as a potential enemy. Bigotry is thus not monopolized by any one race or nationality.
Once prejudice gets a hold on a person’s thinking, he can find himself disliking just about all ethnic groups. Some college students were once asked to express their feelings toward 32 real nations and races plus 3 fictitious groups (“Daniereans,” “Pireneans” and “Wallonians”). Strange as it may seem, students who were prejudiced against real ethnic groups found “Daniereans,” “Pireneans” and “Wallonians” just as distasteful.
A prejudiced person is not necessarily hostile. Nor is he necessarily like the man who hypocritically declares that ‘some of his best friends’ belong to this or that group but recoils at the thought of having such ones as neighbors—or in-laws. There are degrees of bias. A prejudiced individual may indeed have friends of another race but ever so subtly reveal lingering feelings of superiority. He may try their patience by making tasteless, racially oriented remarks. Or rather than treating them as equals, he might assume a patronizing air, acting as though by making them his friends he is conferring a favor upon them.
Another way a person reveals prejudice is by demanding a higher standard of performance from certain ones, though giving them less recognition. And if such ones fail, he might be prone to attribute the failure to reasons of race. Or he may condemn in one race conduct that he tolerates in his own. Nevertheless, such a person would fiercely resent any suggestion that he is prejudiced, so complete is the self-deception. As the psalmist once said: “He has acted too smoothly to himself in his own eyes to find out his error so as to hate it.”—Psalm 36:2.
“By the Time They Are Four Years Old”
Why, though, do people become prejudiced? How early in life is prejudice acquired? In his classic work entitled The Nature of Prejudice, social psychologist Gordon W. Allport noted the tendency of the human mind to “think with the aid of categories.” This is apparent even in small children. They soon learn to discern between men and women, dogs and cats, trees and flowers—and even “black” and “white.” Contrary to the notion that small children are “color blind,” researchers agree that toddlers exposed to a variety of races will soon begin noticing “differences in physical attributes such as skin color, facial features, hair types, and so forth. Children . . . generally achieve full awareness of racial groups by the time they are four years old.”—Parents magazine, July 1981.
But does simply noticing these differences make children prejudiced? Not necessarily. A recent study reported in Child Development, however, claimed that “5-year-olds enter kindergarten with clear preferences for interacting with same-color peers.” Even more disturbing was the observation that “the tendency of children to select play partners of the same color increases during the kindergarten year.” (Italics ours.) Other researchers have similarly concluded that small children are often aware not only of race but also of the implications of race. A four-year-old girl named Joan once made this chilling statement: “The people that are white, they can go up. The people that are brown, they have to go down.”
How children develop such bias is a puzzle to researchers. Strongly suspect, though, is the influence of a child’s parents. True, few parents may directly order their children not to play with children of another race. Nevertheless, if a child observes that his parents are biased toward or just ill at ease with someone of another race, he might similarly assume negative attitudes himself. Cultural differences, peer and media influence, and other factors can then combine to reinforce this prejudice.
For some people, though, prejudice appears to be an overreaction to a bad experience. One young German woman accompanied her husband on a work project in Africa. There she ran into problems. She felt that some of the people were prejudiced against her both as a woman and as a European. The attitudes of some also shocked her Europe-bred sensibilities. Dwelling on the problems caused by just a few resulted in her coming to dislike all black people!
Likewise with a West Indian student who was living in the United States some 20 years ago. Although neatly dressed and courteous, he was refused service in a restaurant, being told: “We do not serve people like you here.” Not having previously been exposed to racial discrimination and unaware of the racial tensions existing at the time, he tried to demand service—resulting in his immediate arrest! Although the mayor of the city ordered his release and reprimanded the police, this incident embittered him. Years later he still harbors animosity against white people.
In other cases, as pointed out in The Nature of Prejudice, putting others down seems to gratify man’s insatiable hunger for status. It is to ‘think more of himself than is necessary.’ (Romans 12:3) Myths of racial superiority might also be developed so as to “justify” the oppression of a certain group. For example, during the infamous years of the slave trade in the United States, it was popular for blacks to be declared mentally inferior, or subhuman. So common were these beliefs that even American President Thomas Jefferson, an outspoken critic* of slavery, once expressed a “suspicion” that “the blacks . . . are inferior to the whites in the endowment both of mind and body.” Though science has proved such notions untenable, racism lingers.
Why? The most basic reason is clearly shown in the Bible, though overlooked by researchers: “That is why, just as through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because they had all sinned.” (Romans 5:12) Inherited sin has warped the way man thinks and views matters. Rather than be intrigued or delighted by differences, man reacts with fear and insecurity. And even out of a small child’s imperfect heart there can come a frightening array of “wicked reasonings” that grow into destructive prejudices. (Matthew 15:19) Is it possible, then, for prejudice to be conquered?
Jefferson authored the American Declaration of Independence that declared “all men are created equal.” He once called slavery “an assemblage of horrors” but was himself a slave owner.
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Dwelling on the problems caused by just a few resulted in her coming to dislike all people of another color!
[Picture on page 5]
Prejudice can cause people to be suspicious of one another