What is prejudice? It’s something that happens when people pick on and bully other people – usually for being “different.” Prejudice is something we learn – and now we realize it is something we are born with – as illustrated in the song lyric below.
You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught*
You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught…
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
— *©1949 Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers, from South Pacific.
People who are taught to be prejudiced are not always aware that this happened. Still, there comes a time when we must understand and take responsibility for any prejudice we have. Once we become aware of any prejudice that’s been programmed into our brain, we have the possibility to be free of it.
Blame and hate prevent understanding
Instead of blaming or hating people for what they think or do, we can learn to understand why we bully, why we act in prejudiced ways.
Discovery #1: When you can observe prejudice clearly in your self, it can stop.
What Is Prejudice?
Prejudice has roots that grow into trees of hatred, conflict, feelings of superiority or inferiority. Just like the leaves of a tree, prejudice has roots that bloom and grow, unless we learn to understand what creates it. Besides looking at what others say and do, we have to look at the way we think and act.
The best way to do this is by using the four stages of learning:
THINK about prejudice and what it means. Visualize it happening.
REMEMBER how prejudice has affected you or people you know.
OBSERVE prejudice as it happens in your brain – this is called insight.
TALK with other people about the prejudice you observe in the moment.
Discovery #2: The best way to understand the meaning of prejudice is to experience it first-hand.
Where Did Prejudice Begin?
Let’s go back in time to when there were no modern homes, no tall buildings, no stores, no automobiles — only blue sky, miles and miles of open land, and simple, primitive human beings – like this member of the Rock Tribe.
Everywhere they looked, they saw rocks. There were many children in the tribe, and it was becoming difficult to keep track of them. To keep the tribe together, the elders created rituals to be performed by group members. All tribe members had to create a pile of rocks, which the tribe would worship. The superstitious elders believed the rocks 5 represented images of the mysterious forces of nature and that if the tribe did not worship these images, the tribe would perish. This made them fearful.
They also painted their faces with a specific design to show that they all belonged to the Rock Tribe. The patterns drawn on their faces ensured that members would recognize their own.
In another ritual, the elders determined that, every month, everyone in the Rock Tribe would dance to the sun to frighten away evil spirits. These recurring practices gave them a sense of belonging.
These rituals became customs and habits, passed from one generation to the next, becoming strongly held beliefs and traditions.
No one stopped to ask why they continued to perform these practices and live by these laws. Their thinking had become conditioned. They were taught – programmed – to think and act in a certain way. The Rock Tribe’s culture became an established “belief system” and, eventually, a nation, which caused a feeling of patriotism in all tribe members.
This provided tribe members with something they valued more than anything – survival!
The Drive to Survive
Today, we still live in small groups, like tribes – not like the Rock Tribe, but within families, belonging to clubs, student and other organizations, houses of worship or political parties. Some of these contribute to our sense of safety; others do not.
Today people from all over the world depend on each other for survival, so the old ways of individual tribes, as well as those of modern groups, no longer make us safe.
Instead, they divide us and prevent us from seeing each other as one race – the human race.
Discovery #3: Today, individual tribe-like groups are a threat to the security and survival of the human race. The reason? They separate people.
What Does It Mean to Survive?
There are two kinds of survival – physical and psychological.
An ancient tribe, or clan, provided its members with food, clothing, shelter and protection.
We survive physically today when we have enough to eat and drink, clothes to
keep us warm and a place to live.
Each ancient tribe member followed the group’s customs and beliefs. Members had to attach themselves mentally and emotionally to the group and its ways, and loyally follow the tribe. This made the group more powerful — better able to take care of its members.
Today, we survive psychologically when we feel safe and protected by groups we choose to belong to.
Food + shelter = Physical Needs
Sharing a way of life with others = Psychological Needs
Physical Needs + Psychological Needs = Safety and Security
A sense of safety and security comes when both our physical and psychological needs are satisfied.
Over time, individual tribes like the Rock Tribe grew bigger and eventually bumped into other groups’ territories. The Moon Tribe also existed in the same territory. They all needed food, clothing and shelter. As a result, each tribe began to see every other tribe as a threat to its physical survival.
Since the tribes’ psychological survival was tied to their physical needs, they believed their customs, traditions and beliefs were also threatened.
This led to conflict and war – not only over territory but also whose beliefs should dominate, whose birthright should rule, and whose laws should govern in order to ensure everyone’s survival.
The Rock Tribe noticed that the Moon Tribe danced to the moon instead of the sun, and believed this was wrong.
Today, thanks to science, while there are people who still don’t have enough, we have the ability to provide great amounts of food, clothing and housing – the physical elements of survival.
However, psychological conflicts continue, because people are afraid of others who are “different.” Science seems to have no way to resolve the different ideas people have about “how life should be.”
Discovery #5: Fear creates conflict. Awareness creates insight.
Over time, human beings have divided more and more, ever fearful of others who think or act differently. People have continued their old tribal ways through centuries,
generation after generation.
Now it’s OUR turn to either continue the prejudices that came before us, or become aware of them and stop them. Do we want to keep passing ancient prejudices into the future?
Discovery #6: Deeply ingrained in our brain cells, old tribal ways continue to make us prisoners of the past.
Imagine a world without prejudice – where people are NOT conditioned to react to other people in negative ways.
What would that be like – for all of us to become Peace Ambassadors who help educate others – nationally and internationally?
Discovery #7: The survival of humankind relies on only one tribe – the Human Race.
The new world would be a place where prejudices, inherited traditions and customs were no longer needed for protection. We would learn to appreciate differences – cultural differences, in such areas as the arts, architecture, food, clothing and language.
Rather than divide people or create prejudice, these differences would make for a world of interesting diversity and variety. Cultural variety enhances life and provides
Discovery #8: You can change the world when you think for yourself. A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.
What We’re Taught to Believe
The Highest Level of Understanding
Studying how prejudice works can get us to a level of understanding that will help us see where prejudice begins. One way is to use our scientific minds. Just like our prehistoric ancestors, we want to know the best way to survive. That’s why we listen to weather and traffic reports and news broadcasts about what’s happening in the world.
If we study prejudice as a science project, we’ll learn how to protect ourselves from ignorance, fear and day-to-day pressures.
Just like exploring how a car engine works, how a flower grows, and how to produce cleaner air, examining prejudice teaches us how to survive at the highest level of understanding – learning how to get along with people.
Sometimes we humans don’t think before we act. Also, sometimes we’re given information that isn’t true, and we don’t stop to question it. At times, we believe we’re stating a fact when, in reality, we’re making an assumption or expressing an opinion.
Here are some definitions of “prejudice” and steps toward resolution:
Definition 1: Prejudice is judging, assuming or expressing an opinion before we have all the right information.
Question: “What do you think of vanilla ice cream?”
Answer: “It’s my favorite!” or “Too bland! I prefer chocolate.”
This is based on the fact that you’ve had first-hand experience with this ice cream.
Question: “What do you think of the artist Pablo Picasso?”
Answer: “He’s terrific!” or “Too abstract!” or “I don’t know – I’ve never seen his work.”
Without first-hand experience of this artist’s work, an honest opinion is not possible.
Question: “What do you think of the new student from the Ukraine?”
Answer: “He doesn’t speak our language; he just smiles. Seems kind of stupid.”
Would this opinion be based on:
- First-hand information?
None of the above! So, the answer is definitely a prejudiced one.
Calling someone “stupid” assumes a lack of intelligence without knowing whether that person is stupid or not.
Is it fair to assume someone is stupid when you’ve never had a conversation with that person?
Definition 2: Prejudice is judging a person or group that appears “different” from us.
What could possibly make us hate someone we’ve never met? Why would we automatically hate people just because they’re “different”?
If you were told that there’s a new student in school who discovered that you were not born in this country, and she hates you because of it — how would you feel? In a way, it’s like sending an innocent person to jail. Can you think of a time someone called you names or tried to bully or hurt you — simply because you were “different”? That person, who acted in a prejudiced way toward you, has likely triggered feelings of prejudice inside you, and now you feel prejudiced toward him or her. This is how prejudice grows. Even though that incident is long gone, you keep remembering it, and reliving it.
The first step in becoming free of prejudice is learning to question what we see and hear.
Discovery #9: Although prejudice is something that happened in the past, it can continue, and make you unhappy in the present.
What Does it Mean to Be Different?
Have you ever wondered how much prejudice must exist to create a tremendous conflict like war?
All over the world, little conflicts go on every day. Maybe someone has called you names or tried to bully you because you were “different.” It’s happened to many people who still feel the pain of it — not physically, but inside, where thoughts and feelings are.
But what’s wrong with “different”?
If you heard that there was a new theme park in town, and that it had an amazing ride — something different from anything you’d ever been on before — would you instantly hate it? Probably not! Would you want to go there and try the ride? Probably so! In this case, “different” means exciting and new.
How about if you heard that there’s a new candy bar that’s so different from anything you’ve ever tasted, you’ll never want to eat any other candy bar again? Wouldn’t it interest you — even if it were “different”?
Why would someone who dresses differently, or speaks differently, or thinks differently be less exciting than a new ride, or a delicious new candy bar? Do you think some kind of prejudice is at work here?
You and I can be taught to think in ways that make us dislike, or even hate, another person without ever understanding why — without understanding how we could be taught to think and act this way.
Judging a person does not define who they are. It defines who you are.
Can we look upon other people’s customs and traditions without judging them? Is it possible for us to develop an understanding about life that ends prejudice?
Our Mechanical Brain
Do We Protect, or Do We Learn?
When we hear about or read a news story that’s shocking, a natural reaction is to want to push it away, forget about it, to protect us from even thinking about something so horrible. But do we want to protect ourselves, or do we want to learn?
Prejudice is a way of thinking that usually negatively judges what we see. For that reason, it’s been taught, mostly, as something that’s bad — something we should protect ourselves from, something we “should not do.”
But if we’re going to be scientists, it’s important for us to remain fair and impartial when we’re exploring the causes of any subject we study. If we decide that any person, place or thing is “bad,” before we even explore it — then we are being prejudiced.
Learning about prejudice requires a mind that looks factually, without judgment, at the root-causes of prejudice – to understand how it happened. Sometimes it’s difficult to look because of the suffering prejudice has generated.=
Perhaps some people have perceived you as “different” and, as a result, have picked on you or bullied you. If you’ve felt the pain of prejudiced attitudes and words, you already have a good reason to want prejudice to end. Whatever your reason, learning to understand it will help end it — before it even begins. And hopefully this understanding will help you avoid conflict and prevent future conflicts.
We Have a Mechanical Brain
Prejudice is a mechanical difficulty in the brain. It’s like a machine in our heads that programs us to act in ways that create fixed ideas and hence conflict. It begins with someone telling us something that is a judgment rather than a fact.
- A thought enters your brain once, giving you an image in your mind:
Example: Jan is a bad person.
- The image is repeated by many people:
John: Jan is a bad person.
Jane: Jan is a bad person.
Pat: Jan is a bad person.
- The message is backed up by a feeling.
Example: I don’t like Jan because Jan is bad.
- Thought + Image = Message + Feeling
Are these thoughts true? No! Are they based on fact? No!
Together the thought and feeling create a “thought/felt”.
One day you see Jan, and the “thought/felt” kicks in automatically. It’s mechanical! But the fact is: Although this is the image in your brain – it isn’t real!
Discovery #10: Prejudice is like a House of Mirrors. All the images you have of others – they are created by you.
We believe that what our brain has told us is factual, but, in reality, we’ve been judging. And by judging, we have not been understanding.
Scientific Mode of Operation for Understanding
We have to do everything in our power to keep our minds in a mode of operation that promotes understanding.
Here it is:
1. Remain cool and calm
How well can we function if we are upset? What are the chances for our understanding a situation if we are so angry that we cannot speak? It’s powerful and serves us best to be able to stay cool and to think and act in an objective way when we find ourselves in a tense, fearful situation.
2. Explore all parts of the machinery
A good scientist sees a person, place or thing from every conceivable point of view.
3. Question without judging
A good scientist is able to see all sides of a situation in any conflict.
4. Test findings for truth and factuality.
Think about ways to check the validity of any rumor or story you hear.
Many Prejudices – But One Root
While the roots of prejudice are hardwired in our brain and have been passed on to us by people who came before us, prejudice that now lives within us comes from inside us.
Discovery #11: Prejudice is a way of thinking that’s out of focus. It causes us to inaccurately judge what we see.
From Inner to Outer
Prejudice creates inner conflict – it puts us at war with our selves, inside our minds. Seeing someone as bad, wrong, stupid or different immediately creates conflict in our minds.
Once we think and act from prejudice we feel inside, we put our prejudice outside ourselves. We act negatively toward someone we perceive as “bad.”
Which of the following kinds of prejudice have you seen?
- Skin color
- Belief system
- Gender (male/female)
- Sexual partnership
- Social class (lower/middle/upper)
- Physical disability
- Body size
Prejudice Inside Us ➞ Prejudice Outside Us = Conflict
Rather than look at distinctions that separate us, we need to look at ways we all are the same – at what we have in common and what we mutually like. Which of the following kinds of sameness have you seen?
- Things you like
- Things you don’t like
- Your favorite people
- Your favorite sports
- Your favorite music
- Your favorite books
- Your favorite movies
Our mechanical brain is capable of great thought and, also, false images. Learning to recognize the difference is life changing.