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October 11, 2005

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices – part 2

As I get older and more introspective, it is becoming increasingly clear that I have deep within me all kinds of stereotypes about other groups of people based on their religion and ethnicity and nationality and class. So I am sure that, if I go deep into my psyche, I will discover beliefs about Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Norwegians, Chinese, Ugandans, working class people, rich people, in fact every group that I myself am not a member of, that would be seen as laughable, absurd or even offensive by members of those groups. The reason is that basically I know very little about any of these groups.

Because of this I have learned that I cannot trust my instincts, because they have been acquired using inadequate and erroneous data. In order to combat my stereotypical thinking, I have to fall back on my intellectual understanding of politics and race and class. In my intellectual/analytical mode, I know that stereotypes are unreliable guides to predicting the behavior of people, that race has no validity as a biological construct, and hence no inferences can be drawn about what various ethnic groups are 'really' like, as if there is some innate and unchangeable quality that characterizes groups of people. We are the products of our upbringing and while there is variation due to genetics and heredity, these qualities do not correlate with 'race, ' because the concept of race is not a biological one.

But to say that intellectually I understand that my stereotypes have little basis in science and reality is not to imply that the prejudices the stereotypes generate have no power over me. It is that when it comes to issues of race (and class), my intellectual knowledge is in a constant struggle with my 'gut' feelings, and I have to constantly guard against making snap judgments. While I trust my intuition in many areas of life (say in applying laws of physics to situations), I know that it is unreliable in making judgments involving race, and so I have got into the habit of being on my guard whenever issues of race comes up. This is why I was so skeptical of the initial reports of people of color behaving badly after Katrina. It was not because I am not prejudiced. It was because I am consciously aware of the existence of my prejudices and so realize the need to be alert whenever I encounter news reports that have racial implications. I needed to see harder evidence about the events of Katrina to convince myself that I was not believing things because I was succumbing to my prejudices. And that hard evidence never materialized.

I think that we all have such stereotypes. We cannot help it. It seems to be an instinctive trait that we make generalizations and create theories (often unconsciously) about everything in life that we encounter. It is well known in the educational literature that even very young children develop quite intricate models of how the world works, prior to, and even in the face of, formal instruction. The less actual data that we have about any thing, the more likely that our theories will be faulty, and thus are stereotypes and prejudices born, often at a very young age.

Stereotypes are not necessarily completely false. They usually have kernels of truth. In my own case, there exist stereotypes about each of the categories of the community of people that I grew up in, which consisted of middle class Protestant Christian Tamil Sri Lankans. They are not completely untrue. The difference is that since I know that community very well, I am well aware that the common features that give rise to stereotypes are dwarfed by the huge diversity and variation that exists within that group. And because of that variation, I know that it is foolish to judge any individual in that group based on the stereotype, because any given person in that group might come nowhere close to it. So while elements of the stereotype may be true, it would be a mistake to judge any individual person based on that stereotype.

To take a trivial example, Sri Lankans in general have the stereotype about being somewhat casual about punctuality, especially in attending social events. This has an element of truth and I recognize it. So when one is invited to dinner at a Sri Lankan home, one should not be surprised to see people arrive at a range of times spanning a couple of hours.

But recently I was invited to a surprise party in the US where a sizeable number of Sri Lankan Americans had been invited. These kinds of parties depend on all the guests arriving by the scheduled time in order for the surprise to be effective. I discovered that all the Sri Lankan invitees had been given a starting time that was an hour earlier than that given to other guests, on the assumption that then they would arrive by the scheduled time. When I discovered this little ruse after arrival, I found it mildly offensive, even though it would have been too petty to complain. I resented being put in a box, when the hosts had no idea whether I was a punctual person or not. From my personal experience I knew that, despite the stereotype, there are many Sri Lankans who are punctual and they should not have to be treated based on the stereotype.

This is where I think the problem lies. While it is perhaps inevitable that each of us harbors prejudices about other groups of people based on stereotypes, we should not base any specific actions on them. It is not what we believe that is the problem, it is what we do with those beliefs.

To be continued tomorrow…

POST SCRIPT: Real Time with Bill Maher discussion on religion

Bill Maher, Salman Rushdie, Ben Affleck, and Andrew Sullivan discuss religion on the TV program Real Time.

Trackbacks

Trackback URL for this entry is: http://blog.case.edu/singham/mt-tb.cgi/3371 The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices - part 3
Excerpt: (For earlier installments in this series, see part 1 and part 2) The problem with fighting prejudice is that we...
Weblog: Mano Singham's Web Journal
Tracked: October 12, 2005 08:21 AM The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices - part 4
Excerpt: (For earlier installments in this series, see part 1, part 2, and part 3.) In order to begin an honest...
Weblog: Mano Singham's Web Journal
Tracked: October 13, 2005 07:47 AM The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices - part 5
Excerpt: (For earlier installments in this series, see part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.) It is quite possible...
Weblog: Mano Singham's Web Journal
Tracked: October 14, 2005 07:24 AM

Comments

"It was not because I am not prejudiced. It was because I am consciously aware of the existence of my prejudices and so realize the need to be alert whenever I encounter news reports that have racial implications."

This is the statement that so few people make. In our country, to admit that one is prejudiced is like admitting one has AIDS in the middle of an intimate act - it is seen as horrendous, awful, a demonstration of evil.

Yet the point in admitting to prejudice is exactly that which you have stated - to be aware of its existence so that your mind can override your gut in situations involving the prejudice. It is that self-awareness that moves us beyond animalistic behavior into a more peaceful existence. It allows us to interact with a group we may otherwise shun, to know the individual, to realize we are all the same species, despite our differences.

The first time I suggested to a friend that he is racist, he reacted with a violent "No! I have a racially blended family (his white parents have adopted and fostered Hispanic, Asian, and black children). How could I be racist?" Yet I had also heard him talk about how all the black men he worked with and who entered his store had an "entitlement attitude - that they should get paid for not working because the 'white man was keeping them down'". He lived in a black neighborhood, yet very rarely interacted with any of his neighbors, and when he did, it was always with a certain distance.

I know my prejudices have led me to make very wrong assumptions about people, based on their lifestyles, hair, clothes, skin color, religion, or sexual behavior.

My sister, who is going through a difficult time that not all of us understand, asked me to do something: ask her questions rather than make assumptions about what she is thinking and feeling. It was perhaps the best thing she could have told me to do to save our friendship and relationship as sisters. It is advice I hope more people take.

Posted by on October 11, 2005 01:07 PM

Someone wrote:

My sister, who is going through a difficult time that not all of us understand, asked me to do something: ask her questions rather than make assumptions about what she is thinking and feeling. It was perhaps the best thing she could have told me to do to save our friendship and relationship as sisters. It is advice I hope more people take.

Couldn't this advice be applied just as well to the decision to label someone else as a racist?

I don't think I agree with the notion that focusing on race helps one to avoid prejudice. Living in a couple of racially divided cities has called my attention to race in a way that my more integrated birthplace didn't, and the more I think about racism and integration, the more I've found I tend to categorize people. I ... don't think this is helpful at all. It's like the old "don't think of an elephant" problem - the minute you start subjecting all of your interactions with a person who differs from you on dimension X to scrutiny, dimension X takes on higher relevance in your mind. It's acutely uncomfortable, and I don't think it's just because it calls attention to one's latent prejudices - I think it's because it actually deepens them.

Posted by Erin on October 11, 2005 04:35 PM

Mano, what a wonderful piece of writing, the most compelling I've read on the subject.
The key truly is self awareness. It is only when we turn inward to understand are own minds, can we begin to understand many things.

Posted by Mary on October 11, 2005 05:48 PM

Erin,
I don't think Mano means that we should be thinking of this in all of our interactions with people of different races (or other differentiating categories), but I think it does help us to remain aware of our own biases when addressing related topics or when making decisions that are impacted by these differences.

For example if I'm discussing computer back-up software with my friend X at the Barking Spider, I'm not thinking about the differences in our skin color. But when he is telling me about all of the times he—a clean-cut, well-dressed person of color with a Ph.D. and a late model car—has been pulled over by the police, then the differences in our skin color, the places we've lived and our individual experiences all come into play.

At those times we can't have any sort of meaningful discussion without acknowledging the elephant in the room.

Posted by cool on October 12, 2005 05:35 PM