What Is Prejudice?

I was listening to the wives of some friends a few weeks ago, when one of them said to the other, with a snort, “Men! They’re all alike.”

Of course, this was said with a certain degree of levity, but also with a good measure of seriousness.

This brought to mind many similar generalizations I’ve heard over the years, expressing opinions – usually derogatory – about an entire grouping of people.

Generalizations Are Generally Wrong

There are two things we all need to keep in mind about generalizations.

First, it’s a very strong tendency for everyone to do it. If I might make a generalization of my own, everyone generalizes. Of course, by this, I mean determining some distinguishable characteristic of a person, then attributing that person’s behavior to anyone who has that characteristic.

When my friend’s wife said “Men! They’re all alike,” she was focusing on one aspect of my friend’s behavior, then generalizing that behavior to all people with a certain distinguishing characteristic, namely, being male.

The tendency to do this is what gives rise to all prejudice.

Generalizing Is A Survival Trait

We really cannot fault people for having the tendency to generalize, because this is one of the necessities for survival, especially in the wild.

If a horse on the plains of the western U.S. tries to eat a plant that has white flowers and fuzz on the leaves, then discovers a bitter taste and gets sick from that plant, the horse will then generalize that all plants that have fuzz on the leaves should be avoided.

A dog that gets swatted with a rolled-up newspaper will quickly learn to shy away from all rolled-up newspapers.

A Story About Generalizing

When I was teaching high school in Florida in the 1970’s, I had an allegory I would tell my students about prejudice. At the time, we were in a community that had an insufficient number of minority residents to meet federal guidelines, so the county gerrymandered the school districts so as to bus minority students in from the neighboring town.

I tried to be open with the students in discussions about this, and about prejudice, and it quickly became apparent to me that very few of the students had a good grasp on exactly what prejudice IS.  So I told them this allegory.

Let’s say you’re vacationing in England. You’re walking down the street, and here comes this punker. This one has green hair in spikes out to here, a leather vest with no shirt underneath, tons of silver studs, and black eye makeup reminiscent of Alice Cooper.

(Note: at this time, punkers, especially in England, were in the media.)

You begin to pass by this person, and suddenly, he wheels around and punches you in the arm, then runs off, shrieking with laughter. “OWWW!”

You rub your arm and wonder what was that all about?

Five minutes later, here comes another punker. This one has orange hair, shaved on one side (here we had a great time as I described how this punker was decked out), and when you get next to her, she kicks you in the shin, then runs off, shrieking with laughter.

YOWTCH! What’s going on here!?!?

Five minutes later, here comes yet another punker. This one has silver hair (and a few more fun descriptives) … what are you going to do?

The students would invariably give answers such as, “I’d hit him first!” or “I would run in the other direction,” or “I’d cross to the other side of the street.”

After listening to all their responses, I would smile and tell them, “You have just exhibited prejudice.”

At this point, their reactions ranged from denial to shocked realization.

This discussion would always yield a wonderful discussion about prejudice, what causes it, what to do when faced with it, what to do when you yourself are tempted to exhibit it.

The Second Thing About Generalizing

The second thing to keep in mind about generalizing is that people – and you don’t know which people – will do it about you.

If you’re male, then you represent the entire male species. So when my friend’s wife says, “Men! They’re all alike,” she’s talking about you.

Same thing for you if you’re female. “Women! You can’t live with ’em, you can’t live without ’em.” They are talking about you.

How about if you’re white? Or black? Or Oriental or Aleut or Arab? People will generalize about you.

How about if you’re Methodist, or Baptist, or Jewish, or Hindu? People will generalize about you.

How about if you’re a violinist, or a keyboard player, or a trumpeter, or a singer? Yep, you got it. You represent that entire group of people when others generalize.

The same applies to careers. “All doctors…” or “Fighter pilots always…” or “Dancers always seem so…” or “Cashiers in that store always treat you like…”

The bottom line for this second thing to remember is that no matter who you are, no matter who your ancestors were, no matter what you do in life, you always represent many groups of people.

Who Do You Represent?

That line above was the original title of this post. I changed it because this is first about prejudice, and how everyone does it.

But the second thrust of this article is when we recognize prejudice will always exist, and \will frequently be directed against US, we now have to determine which groups we represent, and how we want to represent them.

But as with most things in life, it all comes back to this:

Who Do You Want To Be?

Each of us must determine the kind of person we want to be in our lives. Happy or depressed? Grateful or complaining? Ethical or a liar/cheater/stealer? An organized neatnik or a slob?

As we decide the kind of person we want to be, it might help to consider that whoever we are, we represent many other groups – our race, our career, our religion, our hobbies, etc. – and that those people who generalize will attribute who we are to other members of these groups.

That’s something of a heavy responsibility, isn’t it.

It doesn’t matter how old you are. Right now is the time for you to decide: Who do you want to be? It’s not too late.

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