Prejudice might be a social concept but it is inherent within all human beings from as early as possible. We begin to be prejudiced so far back in our childhood that it almost seems an innate thing to our lives. But it isn't. It is learned behaviour. So whether we like to admit it to ourselves or not, we are ALL prejudiced in one way or another. To appreciate that fact, let's look at the root of the word.
Prejudice is simply pre-judging something or someone. In any context where there is FREE choice, we have to pre-judge the options before we get the necessary information to make the right choice for us, not for anyone else. It means no matter how simple the choice, we have to pre-judge what it offers to make our selection. On that basis there really is nothing wrong with being prejudiced, per se. The problem comes only when we use the word in a negative context to demonstrate personal preferences which are linked to discrimination and power.
It means that we can unlearn being prejudiced if we really want to but, being a negative habit which we might practise subconsciously, it cannot be done instantly and has to have four key elements before there will be any real change: acknowledgement, identification, desire to change and raising awareness and education.
To unlearn something, we have to start from the base, back to the psyche and our beliefs, to untangle the reasons why we are acting like that in the first place. We need to identify what information have we acquired down the years that has formed our beliefs and made us unduly prejudicial and fearful, and then deal with the root of those fears before we can begin to tackle our actions.
c. Desire to change
d. Awareness and Education
Anything we have learned can be unlearned, but it takes a lot of thought and action and, above all, education and awareness in the alternatives available. By teasing out long-standing fears, being aware of the information which led to those beliefs and the desire to be prejudiced, especially against someone, while widening our horizons through education regarding more engaging and affirming ways of interacting with others, we have a much better chance of unlearning our negative prejudices and replacing them with more positive and reinforcing behaviour.
Prejudice is a natural by-product of making choices in life. We are presented with a diversity of choice daily, from which we are required to select what matters to us most, what we like best, the things which keep us in our comfort zones and anything that enhances us the most, while resisting the rest. From choosing a partner to choosing a fashionable item, we are exercising the prejudice of accepting one thing while rejecting another. So we are all guilty of exercising prejudice in some form and we all have our prejudices relating to lifestyle and culture.
However, such prejudices become an issue where those choices are made out of deliberate malice to show dislike, to stem personal fear, to demonstrate superiority, to exclude others and to denigrate or deny their presence and rights. In fact, prejudice becomes intolerable when it is applied to people who cannot change their colour, their disability, gender or sexuality. One always has the opportunity to lose weight, if one is too big, to stop smoking, if the smoke offends others, or to stop behaving badly, if it annoys one's peers. But prejudice against people who cannot change who they are, or their identities, hits below the belt and becomes unacceptable.
Dealing with such prejudice is often a traumatic process for those on the receiving end, especially if they are not supported by the system, by neighbours or the community. People affected by mindless prejudice often feel impotent to deal with it and many are left scarred by its effects. However, the room for those malicious types of prejudice is gradually contracting because of the global exposure to difference, the networking opportunities to deal with people of different cultures and communities, and the educational advantages available.
In fact, the vast amount of information available on the Internet and elsewhere, the dramatic increase in travel over the years and the proliferation of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, are doing more to break down such prejudices, and the barriers to the acceptance of diversity, than anything that has gone before them. They now make it difficult to exercise real prejudices, especially when one has been out of one's locality or is trying to make 'friends' on a global scale.
Dealing with prejudices has never been easy, and prejudices will always be there. But thanks to education, technology and greater exposure to one another, such prejudices can gradually be minimised instead of being allowed to cause real damage.
Q. Is it embarrassment? Is it guilt? It makes me uncomfortable when someone won't look me in the eyes when they are speaking with me. It makes me think there is something I don't know that is happening. Perhaps they are hiding something. What do you think?
A. Many people put a lot of meaning into eye contact, believing that it indicates certain characteristics about the individual, but that is a mistake because eye contact between two people depends primarily on the following reasons:
If I ever looked at my mother directly when she was telling me off I would have been clipped round the ear for being disrespectful. Eye contact is never maintained in such societies where both parities are unequal in age, status or role.
2. The people in the interaction
3. The situation itself
The only way to interpret eye contact is when everyone is clearly aware of the rules and are playing to expectations. But if there is a cultural mix in the interaction, nothing can be read into a lack of eye contact simply because the parties would clearly be reacting to their own rules on this matter!
Throughout our lives, we constantly accept, decide and integrate thought processes of what we will believe and what we will reject. These preferences create the filters which block our awareness of what we do not wish to know. They accept a particular reality as true while rejecting other alternatives, no matter how true they too might be.
Without such filtering, we would be inefficient and ineffective, because there would be too much to concentrate on. We would be unable to decipher or decide, and to focus our attention in any meaningful way. In this way we are kept in a particular location while we largely ignore others, unless they intrude upon our current perception of reality. There is an easy answer for this.
According to scientists, the subconscious mind regularly absorbs over a billion pieces of information per second. Add to this figure a recent finding that the average person today perceives 65,000 more bits of information and stimuli per waking day than his or her foreparents did a century ago, and it is not difficult to see that our brains are being bombarded at a confusing rate.
That is why less than one per cent of what comes in ever reaches the conscious mind. Within a fraction of a second over 99 per cent is filtered out. What directs the filtering process is individual perceptual preference, based on culture and choice. Sometimes we overdo the filtering process by blocking out more information than we need to. We then become almost blind to the reality of others, which locks us into various stereotypes of ignorance and bigotry.
Due to social conditioning, whatever is automatic, even from infancy, can be altered, expanded, enhanced or changed along the way to adulthood. That is why children have the least amount of learned preferences blocking their true perception. Lacking adult experience, they confront situations directly, not bothering with any tact or diplomacy. The fable of the emperor's new clothes is a case in point. While the adults were reinforcing the emperor's pretence by fawning over his new invisible attire, it took an innocent child to point out that the new clothes were actually non-existent. The emperor was, indeed, as naked as a jay bird!
Creating personal reality
These individual filters feed our reality and strengthen our perception of ourselves, but they tend to isolate us emotionally from our world. In effect, we deceive ourselves of our worth while we derogate others, which is how we formulate stereotypes. In our own ignorance and lack of knowledge around a person or subject, we develop stereotypes to cope with it until actual reality and experience tells us otherwise. Thus, like the youngster in the crowd yelling at the emperor and speaking the truth others chose to ignore, we benefit when a fresh viewpoint is offered and a new challenge is met which takes us out of our comfort zone.
We need the reassurance of mutually accepted beliefs, from ourselves and our peers, since these very preferences (and prejudices) help us to develop the right level of social skills. In time we become aware of our personal filters (i.e. our own accepted beliefs) and periodically re-evaluate them to decide whether or not each one is still operating in our best interest. With confidence and maturity, we may find that some perceptions we have are not only outdated, but they were never really necessary to begin with, or could even be very harmful, to achieving our objectives.
Stereotypes are used to deal with the unknown on a macro level. When we fear anything, we don't understand it, lack information on it or we wish to feel superior to it, we identify observable characteristics of a few representatives (e.g of a group) and apply them to the whole. It makes everyone in the group seems less threatening or overwhelming and makes the person using the stereotype feel more comfortable and powerful. It is often racist, but it can be sexist, ageist or applied to people with specific political and religious labels like Liberals, Conservatives, Catholics, Muslims etc.
Stereotypes reflect flat, one-dimensional caricatures of people which bear little resemblance to the variety and diversity inherent in any group or race. But they surface all the time in many interactions for easy categorisation and comprehension of social and cultural behaviour. We hear a lot about stereotypes and why we should not use them, but there is nothing wrong with stereotypes, per se. We tend to judge each other by generalisations in order to understand every aspect of life, especially when faced with difference for the first time. It's a kind of shorthand way of addressing new groups without having to note every minute detail about them every moment of the day.
The brain, like any computer, works from the macro to the micro when absorbing information, seeking coherence and order by using the information it already has to sort items and people in the fastest, most stereotyped and efficient way until more data becomes available. At the first, or macro, stage, the only effective way to view people of all ilk is to focus on their similarities, what they are perceived to have in common from our state of ignorance, especially what links them together, whether positive or negative, in order to appreciate their culture/behaviour/perspectives/values, etc.
When more information becomes available, sorting switches to the micro, or individual level, to focus on the differences that set the person or group apart in their own right, and to establish the level of familiarity and comfort in dealing with the strangers/new situations. This automatic second stage process by the brain uses the diferences to assign individual characteristics to a host of original 'sameness' features. Once we appreciate the uniqueness of that individual, we begin to feel more comfortable with them and there is no further need for stereotypes. We tend to accept them as they are and tend to respect their individuality.
So, while it may be wrong to assign something negative across a whole group of people, it becomes offensive as a stereotype ONLY if we know better. When we are more aware of the uniqueness and individuality of the group, yet still persist in classifying those people in stereotypic ways, we are saying a great deal about ourselves. It is also the negative nature of stereotypes that makes them offensive because we really cannot accept a positive stereotype like, "Many African Americans are great athletes"(which appreciates and applauds their prowess), or that "Asians are good academic performers who end up in high status professions" (something which enhances that ethnic group by increasing its social and economic appeal) then react in an aggrieved manner when negative stereotypes are used as well.
The main thing to note about stereotyping is that, If the original perception of difference remains unchanged, despite added knowledge to the contrary, that's where negative stereotypes become damaging and prejudicial. Any further assumptions would be deliberate and used for a particular purpose that is rarely ever meant to be complimentary to that person or group, and is designed mainly to make the perpetrator feel superior - in effect, becoming their own personal derogatory power tool.
Why do women need to eternally justify their presence in the workplace through the concept of 'merit'? Is it a tacit acknowledgement that they are, in fact, 'inferior' and, if any woman actually makes it her gender has been done a great favour and they all should be grateful? Are women not entitled to be appointed or promoted without any undue enquiries as to their worth?
Perhaps such justification seems to be important because even the women themselves appear to have accepted that only men should get certain jobs, particularly in politics. Thus, if a woman qualifies at all to fill their shoes, there has to be much hullabaloo to convince everyone that the male 'standards' haven't slipped, neither will they be lowered and the 'fortunate' woman truly merited carrying the baton of male authority.
Incredibly, the act of always linking women with the word merit has not been seen as a gross insult by anyone, especially when many men have been appointed or elected to the highest offices because of their gender through the ubiquitous 'old boy' networks. On such occasions, the question of merit never seems to have any relevance at all. But women do have it in their power to change perceptions of themselves, especially if they take the initiative.
For example, in its first few years, the prestigious British Booker prize for the best book of the year mainly went to men, and mainly male authors were shortlisted. Few women writers seemed able enough to even be in that final list. Their writing was never perceived to be up to standard. When, in 1991, not a single woman was shortlisted, the Orange prize exclusively for women was introduced soon after that with an even bigger prize money than Booker, precipitating an indignant debate around its merits and rationale. It raised hackles to the roof because, suddenly, women no longer had to wait forever to have their talents acknowledged by a virtual all male club. Naturally, there were the most enormous cries of anguish about women being 'specially favoured' which was not a good idea, and how no one would want an award for men.
Anomaly and Inequity
The female writers who have benefited from the Orange prize now have more publicity for their work; the public has had the chance denied them in the past to see more writers of quality and the good news for women all round (who make up 51% of the UK) is that they have been exposed to far more writers of all ilk than ever before. That has to mean greater literary benefits all round.
The notion of equal opportunities have a long way to go before women ever become truly equal. Perhaps we need a change of terminology to recognise the diversity of people and talent and reward that important difference, not expect everything to conform to the male standard. If we all accepted that each person is different, but equal, we would already be half-way along the road towards creating a situation where the diverse workplace (one which values men, women, minorities, people with a disability or different sexual orientation, for example) is not only essential to personal, professional and corporate growth, but one established as the norm.
Work would be a place where both men and women played key roles and be individually developed not because any one person specially merited it, or because of any particular gender or colour, but because each person is recognized as having a skill or perspective which is crucial to the economic development of the unit. True diversity would then become the framework within which each individual is able to contribute to the whole from an equitable standpoint, being able to develop their potential without fear or favour.
In such an environment, merit would cease to be of relevance because everyone would have a fully appreciated value, thus automatically 'meriting' anything they earned. It would also be acknowledged that both men and women are essential to reflect the community being served, to the interest of balance and for providing role models. Every worker, regardless or race or gender, would then be able to experience true equality of opportunity, not granted to them by anyone, but justly earned through their own varied talents, unique contributions and appropriate hard work.
There is no easy answer to this because it depends on so many factors, especially cultural and competitive ones, but the following are crucial to success in any sport:
1. Having the facilities and providing the resources for sports training.
2. Dedicated competitors who want to devote lots of time to reaching that excellence.
3. Utilising all the talent, which means BOTH male and female, not just male.
4. Encouraging youngsters as young as possible to take up sports.
5. Having other successful achievers in the sport who give motivation and inspiration to new competitors.
6. Desiring to have the accolade and reputation that goes with that sport, for example baseball for America and soccer for the UK.
For example, America, China and Russia have been at the top of sporting challenges and events because they put the resources into training, they identify talent from as young as possible from both genders, they have lots of former winners who can act as motivators and they push their team members to perform at the highest level There is also nothing like winning a major sporting title on the world stage, like the FIFA World Cup football, to empower others in the future to repeat the achievement.
Naturally, any country fulfilling the stated criteria above has a far better chance of excelling at sports than countries that lack them, especially smaller countries without the resources, and religious countries which exclude women from such activities.
I have been extolling and promoting diversity for a few years now, being one of the main pioneers of the subject in Britain. However, one thing that has occupied me for a while, is why the public service has made such slow progress in good diversity practice, or has made little comparative real headway in both serving and uniting our communities. It just didn’t make sense when so much money to promote equality is being spent by the police, for example, and the councils – in particular – with mainly trickle down effects, and no dramatic changes, especially in perception or behaviour.
While I was waiting to see a member of staff in my local council in Maidenhead some months ago, on a personal matter that affected the quality of my life, I felt terribly frustrated at the lack of any resolution. Dealing with a constant sea of unchanging white faces, and feeling entirely invisible, it was easy to accuse staff of cultural bias or racism, if I didn’t understand what was happening. Instead, their actions being fodder to my expertise, I had one of those Eureka! moments in history. I suddenly realised why diversity and the public service are incompatible with one another and will remain incompatible if not addressed.
Most public service organisations trumpet the benefits of diversity, especially with their written documents. They have adopted its jargon like ducks to water, covering themselves in the glow of equality objectives in a way that suggests they care deeply about getting it right. Yet, despite all the money being spent on diversity development, the results have been slow, at best, and confusing, at worst. The reason for this diversity of outcome could be attributed to one main factor, in particular.
Public service organisations shout about diversity but actually practise equal opportunities. In their perception, that’s the only way they can simplify their service and make it work ‘fairly’ for all. Let’s explain the difference simply. Diversity is about acknowledgement of difference and sensitivity to that difference, to individual needs and to uniqueness.
For example, we don’t pretend that in admiring a red rose it is exactly the same as a yellow rose. They might share the same genre, but the fact that they have different colours is very important to distinguishing their properties. We don’t ignore that colour and lump the roses together pretending both are a popular shade of red. We acknowledge their beauty through their intrinsic difference while accepting their similarity in simply being roses. That is the essence of true diversity: noting the difference while seeking similarities, not ignoring that difference in order to make the person or item more acceptable to us.
The Nature of Equal Opportunities
However, as far as councils are concerned, catering for a vast public as they do, for their service to work everyone has to be treated ‘fairly’, and that means being treated ‘the same’ to avoid accusations of injustice. The same amount of money applies to everyone, regardless of their individual need, the same guidance rules apply to everyone, regardless of whether they are appropriate or not; the same laborious forms apply to every circumstance, whether the applicant is good at filling out forms or not, whether they speak a different language or not and whether their need is simple or complex.
Everything put out by these organisations must apply to everyone ‘equally’ for it to work. So we might have the situation where a 58 year old approaching retirement and on income support is expected by the job centre to have the same keen motivation as a 25 year old trying to establish himself on the occupational ladder or to be welcomed in the same way by prospective employers!
Those who fall foul of such sameness are penalised, patronised and even pulverised. That is also why the same agencies get the funding, the same projects get the attention, the same businesses get the public service contracts, the same types of people get the promotions and the same kind of recruits come through the doors.
Public service organisations do not cater for difference because that flies in the face of their desire to be ‘fair’ to everyone by subjecting each of their users to the same levelling procedures. But in such an environment, diversity and equal opportunities cannot sit side by side comfortably. In fact, the practice of one easily negates the other because sameness and true diversity are a contradiction in terms, being mutually exclusive!
For example, many local authority councils believe that the best way to deal with minority concerns is to facilitating their access to mainstream services, rather than providing for them separately. A laudable aim in theory, but one that would negate that diversity through loss of specificity – a denial of their diversity! The problem with such integration is that groups have to fit with the mainstream requirements to have their needs noticed, let alone fulfilled, a reason they were separate in the first place!!
Any kind of uniformity comes out of genuine understanding, appreciation and value. Where there is no real understanding of the benefits of a given action, or appreciation of its value by the individuals concerned because of their own beliefs and fears; when everyone is not singing from the same hymn sheet, so to speak, there will be fragmentation and disunity. Those involved will be speaking different languages of diversity with different priorities.
So whatever your council is really practising at this moment – whether diversity or equal opportunities – it will explain the quality of its service delivery, the stubborn nature of its staff make up, and the level of inclusion within its client community.
As one who has spent the last 16 years promoting multiculturalism from the rooftops in the UK, through a pioneering book on the subject and two annual national diversity awards, I have been pretty saddened to hear government ministers and others in the media trumpeting that ‘multiculturalism isn’t working’ or we ‘cannot celebrate diversity because it encourages difference’ and keeps us separate. But both statements are based upon ignorance and fear which does not really help a diverse community to move forward together.
There is nothing wrong with celebrating diversity or encouraging multiculturalism. What has been terribly wrong is a marked absence of respect on both sides of the cultural divide which makes appreciation difficult. The word ‘respect’ is glibly shouted by everyone in times of crisis, but it seems to be only in connection with our own needs and viewpoint and very little to do with others. We all seek respect, we feel we are denied it, we accuse each other of not giving it. But in reality, we are simply in love with the idea of the word itself, not its implementation. This could be because we really do not understand the meaning of this important word. Let’s take some glaring examples of disrespect.
Origins of Disrespect
However, how would members of minority groups feel if they suddenly saw signs and promotion for a ‘White History Month’, ‘White Women Forum’, the ‘White Professional Association’ or the ‘White Entrepreneurs Club’, labels which are clearly racist and exclusive? They would rightfully be up in arms. Where is the sensitivity (respect again) for the pointedly White exclusion in those labels? Yet, in a diverse society, such cultural sensitivities are very important if we are to learn about, value, and appreciate one another. Do we really still need such exclusive labels in the 21st century?
2. Negative media coverage
Black History Month emerged because of a lack of positive attention (respect again!) to minorities by the media. Minorities in Britain are virtually invisible in every aspect of life except crime. We hear about them ad nauseam in relation to terrorism, guns, gangs and street crime but hardly in any other dimension. The only time you hear about minorities is when something negative is being reported. Black History Month was introduced to counteract that media exclusion, to give much needed positivity and visibility.
Yet, there should be no need for a Black History month at all because there is just a flurry of activities in October (and February in the USA), a month saturated with events where everyone tries to be heard, to be significant and valued, and then nothing else for the other 11 months. Like tragic cuckoos, they coo loudly once, then go back inside their clocks for another year. What minorities need is to be treated ordinarily, like the majority community, with balance and value.
For example, the focus on celebrities is pervasive in our society. But where are the minority celebrities and achievers? The ones well known in their communities but are ignored by the mainstream press? Where are the minority guests on chat shows? On discussion panels? On entertainment programmes? Where are the minority writers to give alternative viewpoints? Such an exclusive and racist approach keeps minorities in the public eye as extraordinary and non-contributing beings who are simply taking from society.
It uses them in situations that bolster national fear (immigration and crime) while ignoring the vast majority of law abiding, legal citizens quietly playing their part in their communities and boosting the countries economic and cultural worth. Minorities are also used in a cynical way to show national pride abroad, as with getting the Olympics, when multculturalism was suddenly cool and essential, but are largely excluded from the preparations, the promotion and the service contracts.
Lack of Recognition
Diversity and multiculturalism can work harmoniously when all parties are prepared to compromise, and accord each other respect. We cannot simply demand respect for ourselves while giving none because no country can thrive with a divided nation. If we really love our country, we strive together to make it a great place to live. However, we cannot respect what we don’t understand or appreciate.
Starting from that base, Black History Month should be scrapped, for example, and minority heritage and culture celebrated all year round, just like that of the White majority, but under a diversity label. For example, what about Our Diverse Music in January, Our Diverse Literature in February, Arts and Crafts in April, Dance in May, Diverse Foods in June?…You get the drift. It means that, instead of just focusing on minority crime and negative issues around minorities, the White media can actually begin to pay some proportional attention, throughout the year, to the positivity of being a minority, and the rich diversity of our nation, through the cultural exchange of knowledge, particularly encouraging involvement and patronage by White sponsors and patrons. That is the only way to make all people feel included, to engender loyalty and pride, and the main way to change White perception of their Black neighbours.
It is also the only way for all British citizens, whatever their origins, to feel significant, appreciated, valued and included. In effect, to feel respected.