Updated: Feb 27, 2022
I have always wondered about how prejudices come about and why we still come across them in our everyday lives. You come across them in many everyday situations, either it happens to you, or it happens to someone around you. Maybe you are privileged enough and never experience being a target of prejudice. Nevertheless, it does exist because otherwise you would not hear about discrimination happening against certain individuals or groups of people.
You can walk in the grocery store anytime, for example, and be approached by someone who is rude to you: “Oh, you are this and this (any example)“ or "You must be this and that (any example)" when in reality, you aren’t what they think you are. Oftentimes, it is not what someone says but their tone of voice or gestures that intensifies how prejudices are received. Your reaction in that moment is the key to either making it worse or changing the dynamics in a more positive direction. Research shows that there are many different reasons why prejudices exist. I would like to dig deeper into this phenomenon. Maybe we both learn something new from it?
What Are Prejudices?
Prejudices are assumptions or even opinions about a person/particular group of people that is different than us. These differences can be related to many factors, such as ethnicity, religion, gender, race, socio-economic status, lifestyle, appearance, etc. Someone who behaves a certain way because of their prejudices towards someone else is “pre-judging” or “pre-conceiving” the other person, which means judging them without knowing them and not giving that individual a chance to show who they are. Unfortunately, prejudices have a major impact on how we perceive & treat others. Negative feelings, stereotyped beliefs, and a tendency to discriminate are common ways to express having prejudices against someone or a particular group of people.
Categorizing People in Our Minds
Prejudices influence the way we categorize people. As humans we tend to categorize certain people as a part of mentally organizing our thoughts and making sense of the world around us. This starts at a young age. We learn to differentiate who is a girl and who is a boy, who is our teacher and who is our parent, who is a friend and who is a stranger. We meet and see people who have different skin colors and different religions than ourselves. By consciously or unconsciously making connections between categories and behaviors of certain people, we tend to not let loose of such constructed concepts. Ultimately, our perception of others can be influenced by prejudices and determines how we encounter those who are different than ourselves and how we treat them.
The Stubbornness of Prejudices
Obviously, prejudices are stubborn traits because they can remain the same over centuries, being passed on from generation to generation. In some cultures, it is taught that having prejudices is an acceptable behavior but this contributes to the ignorance & not-questioning of prejudice and keeps them alive. Moreover, prejudices seem to be contagious like a virus. Some prejudices, however, are linked to other situations, influences, and experiences. Here are some examples:
· Historical Events
Genocide towards a certain ethnic group or race has occurred in the past across many cultures but, unfortunately, the mindset that triggered that genocide, can still be present in many forms. In every society you can find a marginalized group of people based on historical circumstances.
· A Way to Gain Authority
Some people enjoy using prejudices as a way to feel superior over another person and to gain control over a threat that only exists in their head. This is a type of power dynamic that transpires into an unfair treatment.
· After-effects of Being Bullied
Sometimes you have prejudices because of being bullied by someone who had prejudices against you, and you just carry on that same behavior, while thinking it’s okay even though it’s not.
Stereotypes are generalizations, widely held standardized ideas that are used to describe an individual or a certain group of people. Stereotyping can lead to having prejudices & manifesting them into stigmatizations. If one bad experience with someone from a different culture, language, race, religion or nationality makes you think “everyone is the same” who belongs to that same group affiliation, then you are not only creating stereotypes but also holding on to them.
· Role of the Media
The influence of the media encourages people to have prejudices. Oftentimes, it’s the media that creates concepts of the enemy by blaming an individual or cultural group for the wrongdoings of others or showing and confirming stereotypes that already exist.
Are There Solutions?
The only thing that gets rid of prejudices is questioning them and educating yourself about the truth behind it instead of assuming and relying on assumptions. Unfortunately, it’s easier for most people to not question their prejudices and instead continue to search for reasons to confirm the prejudices they have. Reacting to a prejudice gives you a chance to de-escalate the situation. Of course, you should protect and defend yourself, but it is wiser to not do this with aggression. Instead with as much calmness as possible, even use humor if you can. Steven C Hayes, an American psychologist wrote about prejudices in one of his books called “A Liberated Mind” and his words were: “If we’re going to combat it, we need to change how our minds deal with it”. This basically underlines the fact that prejudices are a part of a mindset and the first step to changing it is to acknowledge you have prejudices and that your mindset needs to open up to new thoughts, new concepts and new perspectives.
Here are summed up some first steps out of the “prejudices trap”:
1. Being aware of one’s own tendency to have prejudices
2. Recognizing one’s prejudices and having the willingness to correct them
3. Fully understand the concept of "live and let live"
4. Allow yourself to be empathetic by putting yourself in their shoes
5. Ask questions (in a friendly & polite manner) instead of assuming
6. Try to find things you have in common instead of focusing on your differences as something negative
7. Seeking open dialogue based on mutual respect
8. Perceive the other person on an eye-to-eye level
9. Strive to understand others on a deeper level
10. Be an advocate for fair & equal treatment of everyone
If you see someone being the target of prejudice you can help, too. There is a helpful tool called the “4-D’s of bystander intervention”: Direct, Distract, Delegate and Delay. Direct means you address what is going on directly even if it might seem to be confrontational by saying: “What you are saying is not okay. Stop!” or “Leave that person alone!”. Distract is a more casual approach and means you change the subject or interrupt the conversation by taking them somewhere else with you. Delegate means getting someone else involved who also sees that what is happening is unfair. Delay means you check in with the person who got attacked with a prejudice by asking if they are okay and need any help.
At the end of the day, we can’t change someone who has prejudices but we can at least stand up for a world where everyone is welcome, where everyone deserves to be happy and treated fairly. This, however, requires an open mindset and the strong belief that every individual is unique in their own way.