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Unpacking Prejudice

February 24, 2017



I stood before two doors. Above one- in red- were the words ‘PREJUDICE.’  Next to it, a green sign read ‘UNPREJUDICE.’  Naturally, I walked towards the green door.  To my surprise, it was locked.   As I looked over my shoulder, the man in charge of my group grinned: “We all have implicit bias or some sort of prejudice.”  I paused at that thought.  Then I walked in the red door and began to explore my own prejudices and bias that shape my thinking and interactions.


Earlier this week, I attended a two-day workshop at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.  Teaching Tolerance- a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center- created the (free!) conference that aimed to arm educators with strategies and content surrounding anti-bias education and prejudice reduction.



So if you will, allow me to take you through the doors of prejudice, as we unpack the word and the role it plays in society.


Prejudice is defined as a ‘preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.’  In other words, prejudice is pre-judging in a negative way.  A key point is that prejudice is closely associated with cognitive functions.  Additionally, an extension of prejudice is discrimination, which takes form when people act on their prejudice.  More often than not, prejudice shows it face when confronted with visible indicators of differences.  Skin color, gender, and age are all visible components that trigger prejudice.  Yet it doesn’t stop there.  Homophobia also falls under the umbrella of prejudice, but where it differs is that this form of identity is not always visible.


To combat prejudice against homophobia, a non-profit organization called GLIDE (Gays and Lesbians Initiating a Dialogue for Equality), presented a strategy to our group.  During a brainstorm, we tossed out every word, phrase, or idea we ever heard associated with homophobia; a teacher commented that this made her feel uncomfortable- especially after she spat out a gay slur.  Sean, who was one of two presenters, explained why he chose this exercise when combatting prejudice: “To get rid of a prejudice, sometimes you have to take the ugliest part of it and drag it into the light.”


GLIDE’s exercise, which could be applied to any form of prejudice, illuminated the insensitivity and lack of acceptance that is shown through language. And if there was one theme the Museum of Tolerance reiterated over and over again throughout its exhibits, it was that language possesses unlimited power if used strategically- specifically for hateful and discriminatory actions.  


Yet there are ways to combat prejudice and the many facets it has.


Since prejudice is a form of thinking, then examining psychological studies can help us unpack why people think this way.  American psychologist Gordon Allport, who coined the term ‘categorical thinking,’ studied thought process related to personalities.  In his book, The Nature of Prejudice, Allport wrote, “The human mind must think with the aid of categories....Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends upon it.”  Since categorical thinking is a natural occurrence in the brain, it’s important to mindfully address those tendencies.


With that in mind, Allport coined the term ‘Intergroup Contact Theory,’ which Teaching Tolerance suggests can reduce prejudice among people of all ages.  This theory focuses on having contact with people outside of your ‘group’ (race, religion, gender) to help cultivate empathy and understanding.  However, this is not always possible. Because of sheer proximity, especially outside of major metropolitan areas, this can be quite a challenge.  Therefore, using art as a way to learn more about others and empathize with races, religions, and genders, is one key strategy for reducing prejudice.  Art, or ‘texts’, as Teaching Tolerance suggests, offers windows where we can view lives that are different than our own.


Another key strategy, which is hopefully instilled in people throughout their education, is to combat prejudice and discrimination with action.  The framework that Teaching Tolerance constructed explains this in a simple yet effective manner.  Identity and diversity are the two initial steps in combatting prejudice.  They realized that once you have self-awareness and confidence in yourself, and recognize and accept that human diversity is a part of life, then you will be better able to reduce your own prejudice.  After that, the last two steps of the framework include justice and action.  When we recognize unfairness and understand the pain it causes, we then use our skills to act on this injustice and stand up against discrimination. 


Throughout the Museum of Tolerance it was clear that many people in Germany, and throughout Europe for that matter, did not speak up against injustice.  Yet, at the end of the Holocaust exhibit they showed individuals and families who acted against injustice, even if that meant risking their lives, to help those being discriminated against.  This was also evident in the Civil Rights Movement, which, by the way, is still going on.  This is seen through educational institutions that are severley segregated and lack resources in communities of color, mass incarceration of young African American males, and the Black Lives Matter movement.  This is the modern Civil Rights Movement.  


As I walked out the doors of the Museum of Tolerance Tuesday night, the words of my instructors echoed throughout my head:  “Educate the youth on identity and diversity so we can have a brighter and more accepting future!  If you are in the dominant group (which as a white male, I am) stand with those who are marginalized! Don’t sit idle as injustice happens.”

Reducing prejudice is not always easy, but then again, things worth fighting for rarely are.


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