Do You Fear Your Prejudices?

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How we deal with prejudice in our own lives, at an individual level, makes all the difference to the impact we have on society at large.

In terms of their public visibility and their impact on conversations in the media and in politics, two of the more vocal groups of people seem to be those who fear their prejudices and those who live their prejudices.

The latter group includes the unapologetic racists, sexists, homophobes, and so forth. We see them in the news when they commit violent crimes against those they don’t like or when they join in rallies for extremist political parties; in everyday life, we might glimpse their disapproving glances or intimidating stares when they encounter someone with the wrong colour or the wrong gender or the wrong partner. For present purposes, I will also include in the group of those living their prejudices the subset of anti-fascists, anti-racists, or anti-whatever it happens to be whose resentment toward the injustices of past or current discrimination or privilege at a societal level leads them to try to make up for these wrongs by introducing new and diametrically opposed discriminations or privileges. In other words, they aim to make the world more just not by reducing privileges that favour one set of people, but by creating new and opposing privileges designed to favour another set left disadvantaged by the first. In grouping them together, I am not hinting at any moral similarity between the unapologetically prejudiced and the ‘anti-prejudiced’, but I am highlighting the shared trait that each has a clear external focus, generally on some specific target population, as a source of problems to be fixed.

By contrast, the other of the two particularly vocal groups includes those who fear their own internal sense that they themselves might be prejudiced, or who fear that others will perceive or infer prejudice within them. While many in this group handle the fear of their own prejudice in silence, others are very noisy about it. Some, for example, are highly motivated to criticise what they see as potential prejudices in those around them less because they believe that is an effective way to make the world more just and more because they fear that if they do not criticise — and criticise loudly — then others might infer from their silence that they sympathise with or even agree with the person they are criticising. Some do not merely fear that they might be prejudiced but actively proclaim that they must be prejudiced due to an accident of birth such as their skin colour or gender. Others go even further, suggesting for example not only that they themselves must be racist because they happen to be white, but also that they cannot really even understand racism or be qualified to comment on it in any way because of the colour of their skin. Often this type of suggestion extends to the belief that the same must apply to everybody who shares the same skin colour, or gender, or sexual orientation, or whatever it might be. From there, it’s an easy segue to the corollary that the internal coherence and logic of arguments or the accuracy of observations carry less weight than the race, gender, or sexual orientation of the person articulating them. (This likewise makes it easy to suppose, for example, that anything non-trivial that is uttered about race by a white person must be ‘whitesplaining’.) Notably, proclaiming everyone in a particular group to be necessarily racist, sexist, or whatever is a great way of both avoiding individual responsibility and framing the problem as entirely intractable.

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In addition to these two groups which seem to dominate the news, the politics, and the national conversation — that is, in addition to the unapologetically prejudiced and anti-prejudiced, plus those fearful of their own prejudices — I think there is another group. This is the set of people who accept without resentment that the world is the way it is, but who work actively to improve it, all while acknowledging that nobody, including themselves, has perfect inner egalitarianism toward the outside world. These people do not shy away from that lack of inner egalitarianism, but they do work to be aware of it, to understand it, to mitigate its effects. These people are more apt to reflect on their inner prejudices than to fear them, more apt to devote themselves to changing them from the inside than to work to ensure nobody suspects them of harbouring them in the first place. They are not blind to the structural unfairness in society that has grown out of unfettered prejudice, but they also believe in the power that overcoming prejudice at the level of the individual has on eliminating that unfairness. Unsurprisingly, this set of people is largely unheard amongst the hubbub and back-and-forth of the two noisy groups I’ve described above. I’ve often wondered how many of them there might be; is it a large proportion of the population, a majority even, or is it just a small slice? I suspect that many in the more outspoken groups would maintain that such people are simply confused, deluded, or living in pollyannaish denial.

To be clear, I think there’s nothing wrong with being afraid of our own prejudices. But what really matters in terms of our impact on the world around us is how we behave when we experience that feeling. Do we put our energy into maintaining a fa├žade to protect ourselves from having those prejudices discovered? Do we protect ourselves by chalking it all up to an accident of birth? Or do we focus on the feeling itself and work to understand it better? Generally speaking, when we respond to fear by trying to protect ourselves, those factors within us which go into the fear tend to remain stuck in place, ensuring that change is slow or non-existent. By contrast, when we accept the fear, sit down alongside it, and listen to it, we can drain away some of its energy, and we can ultimately work to transform it and perhaps rid ourselves of it altogether. That, in turn, opens the way to teasing out and examining with a clear head our assumptions and inferences and outright prejudices, increasing our self-awareness and, at least some of the time, correcting our faulty thinking. It also means we can more easily listen to and understand what other people are saying about their own lives, including about the impact of prejudice and discrimination on them.

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