Mind Matters — The Psychology of Prejudice, Near and Far

We all have prejudices of one sort or another. And when prejudice is more a simple preference than a judgment of badness of another, there is little consequence. Preferences for beer versus wine, or Italian food versus Chinese, or even for brunettes over blondes, give variety to our lives. However, when preferences become saturated with projections of judgment of the defectiveness or lower status of another human being, problems emerge.

I remember my Mother teaching me lessons of tolerance while she brushed my hair preparing me for first grade. Tolerance and compassion for the differences of others, as well as prejudices against others, begins early on in the home. How parents act and how they speak about other groups of people gets ingrained in their children. (Luckily, our views always have the capacity to change.)

Last week, I viewed a documentary on the “Freedom Riders”—those young people, whites and blacks, who defied the Jim Crow laws of the South by riding, integrated on Trailways and Greyhound buses through Alabama and Mississippi. Well, perhaps “through” is an overstatement of their thwarted travel. The state governments colluded with the whites so that beatings of these mostly college students was practically applauded. Even imprisonment did not dampen their courageous push against the status quo of prejudice and discrimination.

Prejudice against other human beings for the color of their skin, their weight, their height, or lack of it, their religion, their sexuality, or their nationality may have its origins in fear: Fear of the “unknown other.” The fear then can become an excuse to project our own negative feelings about ourselves. We set ourselves up as “better” and they as “lesser” (sometimes to the point of projecting onto “them” a sense of non-human). These fully human beings become surrogates for our own feelings of inadequacy and defectiveness. With great bravado, we perceive ourselves as the “super” humans, the “other” as hardly human.

Would that prejudice were a thing of the past, but it is not. Families still teach their children intolerance, as evidenced locally in the epithets that resounded at a sports event from some students to the Hispanic Americans present. On the national level, prejudice revs up again in Alabama, now not against African Americans, but against the Hispanics (many of whom are citizens working there).

Ironically, a new play, Fallow, by Kenneth Lin, just ended at Peoples Light and Theatre Company. In it, a young man, privileged and white, is killed by other whites who mistake him for a migrant worker. (Its prototype may have been The Laramie Project, the play based on the true story of a hate crime against Matthew Shepard, who was gay.)

Of course, prejudice and hatred can be against religions as well as so-called, “race” (a genetically inaccurate nomenclature). While other countries may be intolerant of Christianity, our country appears now to have replaced its penchant for religious discrimination from the Jews to the Muslims.

The reality show about Muslims in Michigan stirred the simmering pot of prejudice here. Meanwhile, Canada (which I’m sure has its own brand of intolerance) has been producing “Little Mosque on the Prairie” for nigh on five years. It is a wonderful sitcom that treats our religious prejudices humorously and with compassion.

We all need to look at ourselves to see where our own prejudices lie. If we judge others for their skin, their religion, their weight, their status, or lack of it, their gender, it is we who are diminished. It may be time to look into the mirror.

Go to: “Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide of the Southern Poverty Law Center, www.splcenter.org.