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What Is Prejudice?

August 24, 2015

I bet readers of this novel have already figured this out and can skip this page, but I need to weave it into the fabric of the plot.

In essence, negative prejudice, especially re. gender, sexual orientation, class (wealth), color (“race”), ethnicity and national origin, or creed, is a presumption of guilt for existing, and discrimination is the punishment that one (un)justly deserves for committing the crime of being like that. Anyone not a member of the offending group is qualified to accuse, judge, and execute. (Some consider it their duty to do so. It gets ugly.)

Prejudice and discrimination can also be positive, in which case you are privileged and rewarded (actual merit notwithstanding) by members of your own group. Positive prejudice is the complement of the negative in the same person and like-minded group.

In either case, you are presumed, prejudged, to be morally worthy or unworthy, legally innocent or guilty, not on the basis of your being human; but on the basis of whether you belong to the dominant or the targeted group. Are you rich or are you poor, etc? Thus you are privileged and empowered, or you are deprived of your humanity.

Prejudice is a major way in which humanity haunts and undermines itself. It’s a self-betrayal and a betrayal of humanity. It’s delusional. It’s a sickness, a failure of the imagination. We build an image that isn’t real—isn’t true to reality—but which we take to be real. We like to think it’s accurate, which would seem to serve our interests and explain away our fears. But the opposite is so. How does that work?

First, let’s note that it’s hard to find someone who isn’t prejudiced (including me), especially in America, where racial prejudice is especially pervasive and vicious, and discrimination by members of the dominant group counter-produces prejudice in members of the targeted groups, so that, for instance, white prejudice against black produces black prejudice against white. Gender prejudice is another example.

Most of us simply run a constant low-grade fever; we might not even notice it; but in some persons it becomes a raging wildfire, raging out of control until it consumes them. Some persons, such as some of our current politicians, like to play with fire—the fires in their constituents. The annual, national cost of such arson runs very high, just to put the fires out, and then there’s reconstruction to be done.

A major mechanism of prejudice is stereotyping. Back in the 20th century, when I was teaching Native Son or Huck Finn, for instance, and I needed my students, many of whom had never given much thought to it—most of them being white folks, to understand prejudice a bit, I would ask them to tell me negative characteristics, that they knew of, attributed to black people. I would then quickly fill a large space of backboard with those traits, e.g. lazy, irresponsible, loud, druggie, violent (on this page is an example from my father’s experience and growth). We can all name all of them. Then I would put two key terms (which they would not have spoken) at the top of the list: dark complexion and the word that, as Ellison wrote in Invisible Man, rhymes with “trigger,” and is the name of the entire stereotype.

Then I could help my students see that it all functions as a whole: if you have one trait, black, you have all, and you are vulnerable to insult and worse. With discussion of experiences, we could see, too, how emotionally “loaded” this thinking is, how the pejorative “triggers” and controls the thought process, how ignorantly out of touch with reality it is, and how it de-individualizes and then de-humanizes its target.

The novels (and other works) were very helpful, for instance by providing vicarious experience. In the process of reading, with more discussion (including examples of my own prejudices in action), they could see how it grows out of fear and ignorance, producing resentment, anger, hatred, and violence, that it is a learned way of thinking—their own learned way of thinking, and that it makes the prejudiced person vulnerable.

And they could begin, at least, to see how it is a form of psychological projection, and thus how it can take the form of violent scapegoating, on a national and international scale.

They also saw how prejudice can be significantly modified and controlled, so that it doesn’t necessarily produce discrimination.

Thus they saw that, now that they knew, they didn’t need to wallow in guilt about so human an error, they didn’t need to feel ashamed, but that instead they could take responsibility for their own thinking and actions.

And btw, by the end they understood the novels well, and took them with them, probably into the rest of their lives.

From → racism, sexism

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  1. There is No Escaping | tomkoontz

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