The Face of Prejudice
“Drive out prejudices through the door, and they will return through the window.”—Frederick the Great, King of Prussia.
RAJESH lives in Paliyad, a village in India. Like other untouchables, he has to walk 15 minutes to carry water to his family’s home. “We’re not allowed to use the taps in the village that the upper castes use,” he explains. When he was in school, Rajesh and his friends could not even touch the football that the other children played soccer with. “We played with stones instead,” he says.
“I sense that people hate me, but I don’t know why,” says Christina, a teenager from Asia who lives in Europe. “It’s very frustrating,” she adds. “I usually react by isolating myself, but that doesn’t help either.”
“I first learned about prejudice at the age of 16,” says Stanley, from West Africa. “Total strangers told me to get out of town. Some people from my tribe had their houses burned down. My father’s bank account was frozen. As a result, I began to hate the tribe that was discriminating against us.”
Rajesh, Christina, and Stanley are victims of prejudice, and they are not alone. “Hundreds of millions of human beings continue to suffer today from racism, discrimination, xenophobia and exclusion,” explains Koichiro Matsuura, director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). “Such dehumanising practices, fed by ignorance and prejudice, have triggered internal strife in many countries and brought immense human suffering.”
If you have never been a victim of prejudice, you might find it hard to comprehend how traumatic it is. “Some live with it in silence. Others return prejudice with more prejudice,” observes the book Face to Face Against Prejudice. In what ways does prejudice damage lives?
If you belong to a minority group, you might find that people avoid you, give you hostile glances, or make disparaging remarks about your culture. Employment opportunities may be scarce unless you accept menial work that nobody else wants. Perhaps it is hard to get suitable housing. Your children might feel isolated and rejected by classmates at school.
Worse still, prejudice can incite people to violence or even to murder. Indeed, the pages of history are filled with harrowing examples of the violence that prejudice can spawn—including massacres, genocides, and so-called ethnic cleansings.
Prejudice Through the Centuries
At one time Christians were prime targets of prejudice. Shortly after Jesus’ death, for example, a wave of cruel persecution was directed against them. (Acts 8:3; 9:1, 2; 26:10, 11) Two centuries later professed Christians faced cruel mistreatment. “If there is a plague,” wrote the third-century writer Tertullian, “the cry is at once, ‘The Christians to the Lions.’”
Starting in the 11th century with the Crusades, however, Jews became the unpopular minority in Europe. When the bubonic plague swept through the Continent, killing about a quarter of the population in just a few years, the Jews were an easy target for blame, since they were already hated by many. “The plague gave this hatred an excuse, and the hatred gave people’s fear of the plague a focus,” writes Jeanette Farrell in her book Invisible Enemies.
Eventually, a Jewish man in the south of France “confessed” under torture that Jews had caused the epidemic by poisoning the wells. Of course, his confession was false, but the information was heralded as truth. Soon entire Jewish communities were slaughtered in Spain, France, and Germany. It seems no one paid attention to the real culprits—the rats. And few people noticed that Jews died of the plague just like everyone else!
Once the fire of prejudice is set ablaze, it can smolder for centuries. In the mid-20th century, Adolf Hitler fanned the flames of anti-Semitism by blaming the Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I. At the end of World War II, Rudolf Hoess—the Nazi commander of the Auschwitz concentration camp—admitted: “Our military and ideological training took for granted that we had to protect Germany from the Jews.” In order to “protect Germany,” Hoess supervised the extermination of some 2,000,000 people, most of them Jews.
Sadly, as further decades have passed, atrocities have not ended. In 1994, for example, tribal hatred erupted in East Africa between the Tutsi and Hutu, leaving at least half a million people dead. “There were no sanctuaries,” reported Time magazine. “Blood flowed down the aisles of churches where many sought refuge. . . . The fighting was hand to hand, intimate and unspeakable, a kind of bloodlust that left those who managed to escape it hollow eyed and mute.” Even children were not spared the horrifying violence. “Rwanda is a tiny place,” commented one citizen. “But we have all the hatred in the world.”
Conflicts surrounding the breakup of the former Yugoslavia led to the death of over 200,000 people. Neighbors who had lived together peacefully for years killed one another. Thousands of women were raped, and millions of people were forcibly expelled from their homes under the brutal policy of ethnic cleansing.
While most prejudice does not lead to murder, it invariably divides people and fosters resentment. In spite of globalization, racism and racial discrimination “seem to be gaining ground in most parts of the world,” notes a recent UNESCO report.
Can anything be done to eliminate prejudice? To answer that question, we must determine how prejudice takes root in the mind and heart.
[Box on page 5]
The Traits of Prejudice
In his book The Nature of Prejudice, Gordon W. Allport outlines five types of behavior spawned by prejudice. A person who is prejudiced usually displays one or more of these.
1. Negative remarks. A person speaks disparagingly about the group that he dislikes.
2. Avoidance. He shuns anyone who belongs to that group.
3. Discrimination. He excludes members of the maligned group from certain types of employment, places of residence, or social privileges.
4. Physical attack. He becomes a party to violence, which is designed to intimidate the people he has come to hate.
5. Extermination. He participates in lynchings, massacres, or extermination programs.
[Picture on page 4]
Benaco refugee camp, Tanzania, May 11, 1994
A woman rests by her water containers. Over 300,000 refugees, mostly Hutu Rwandans, crossed into Tanzania
Photo by Paula Bronstein/Liaison