Excerpt from book, Making Sense of Racism by Rita Starr, co-founder and program designer for Healing Our Nation.
There are various definitions of racial prejudice such as “to prejudge” or “a negative attitude toward an entire ethnic group, usually based on limited information.” The definition that I prefer is “racial prejudice is an emotional commitment to ignorance.”
I use this definition because it addresses the emotional tenacity that we give to our prejudices which are based on inaccurate or limited information. For example, if our racial prejudice is that all Mexicans are lazy and we then have an opportunity to work with a Mexican who is diligently hard working, we usually don’t change our prejudice. We say to or think about our co-worker, “You are not like the others.” In setting the person outside of our prejudice, we get to keep our prejudice about Mexicans while explaining away the contradiction. In this case we are emotionally committed to our prejudice that Mexicans are lazy.
Recognizing the emotional commitment to our prejudice can lead us to explore, “Why are we emotionally committed to that particular prejudice?” Surprisingly, our prejudices tell us something about our personal life rather than something about the target of our prejudice.
Our Inherent Nature As we explored in a previous chapter, all people belong to one race, the human race. We are all part of one human family biologically, environmentally, spiritually. All human beings are born with the capacity for loving, cooperative, zestful relationships with all other human beings. No person is born with racial prejudice. Racial prejudice has to be acquired.
The Conditioning Process
In order to have racial prejudice, people have to be conditioned to do so by being given gross misinformation, being kept separate and by having deep unresolved hurts from early childhood.
In order to prepare a person to have racial prejudice, he or she must be given gross misinformation about the group that you wish him or her to mistreat. This misinformation often starts in the family when the child is young. The very people that the child loves and trusts most give him/her gross misinformation regarding the targeted ethnic group. Part of the misinformation of racial prejudice is the belief that our human family can be divided into “races”—some of which are supposed to be less intelligent, uncivilized, dirty, lazy, etc. This misinformation, based on stereotypes that have been perpetuated in the family, through friends, etc., is “poison in the cookies”.
”Poison in the Cookies”
Correct information about life and the environment are given to the child at the same time incorrect information is given regarding the targeted racial group. This incorrect information frightens the child and instills the poison of fear and mistrust which often alters his/her ability to develop positive, open, trusting relationships with members of the targeted group. At the same time misinformation is being given, other information is not given that would help the child understand and appreciate differences. What follows is a true story about how misinformation poisoned the mind of a small boy.
How a Young Boy Learned to Fear African Heritage People I I was walking down the street with my friend Al. It was a bright shiny day and we were in the middle of a tourist section of St. Louis, Mo. As we were walking, Al and I looked up and saw a group of people of African heritage walking towards us, heading toward another tourist event. When I looked over at Al, I noticed that he looked visibly frightened. After the group had passed, I began to gently question him about what he had felt. He confirmed that indeed he had felt fear. He didn’t know why. It was broad daylight. The African heritage people did nothing to indicate that they were any threat to either of us. They merely walked past, talking and laughing with each other. They were not rowdy. They were well dressed. They were a mixed group of males and females who merely passed us on the street. I asked Al if he would like to explore that feeling of fear later. He said he would.
Later that day, I used a process for exploring feelings. I asked Al to describe the event that had happened that day and what he had been feeling. As Al described the event of passing people of African heritage on the street, he once again experienced the fear. I asked him if he had ever had any negative experience with a person of African heritage that might cause him to feel fear now. He said he had never had any such experience. I then asked Al to recall his earliest memory of an African heritage person. Immediately a memory popped into his mind.
Al was four years old and sitting under the shade of a big tree near a lake. He was with his grandfather whom Al adored and who adored Al as well. This grandfather was his mother’s father and he had played a very important role in Al’s life. Al’s father had been an alcoholic and he had beaten Al’s mother and Al many times. Al’s mother had been very traumatized by her marriage and so little Al had no one to think well about him except for this doting grandfather.
On this particular sunny day, Al and his grandfather were sitting under a tree together. His grandfather was peeling an apple with a huckbilled knife. That’s a knife with a curved blade. As the grandfather peeled the apple, the skin came off in one continuous curl. At some point, the grandfather wet his thumb, reached over and tenderly brushed little Al’s hair off his forehead. Then the grandfather said, “We are going into town and there are going to be blankety blank black people there. But I’ll take care of us ‘cause I’ve got my huckbilled knife!” The grandfather said this as he waved his knife in the air.
At that moment little Al got his first dose of misinformation regarding people of African heritage. Al and his grandfather went into town and sure enough there were black people there. Little Al stuck real close to his grandfather’s legs and from his point of view, they made it out alive. The damage was done. The poison was instilled by the person that Al loved and trusted the most. Add to that the typical experience of the way the media represents black people on television, in the movies and even how history is taught so that it leaves out important contributions people of African heritage have made to world civilization and the United States. You are then left with a person who has been conditioned with gross misinformation about African heritage people.
Is there any wonder that thirty five years later, grown Al would feel fear when he was near African heritage people even though he had never had one negative personal experience? Later on,, we will explore the brain mechanisms that set us up to discriminate based on our conscious and unconscious prejudices.
Segregation Had Al been provided an opportunity to interact intimately with people of African heritage, he might have worked through his fears and discovered the humanity of people from that group. Al was not so fortunate.
The experience of Michael, a workshop participant whose family had historically owned slaves, demonstrates how intimate contact can inoculate a person against racial prejudice that may be taught in the family.
Michael vividly recalled a memory of when he was 3 years old. He had felt so alone during so much of his childhood. He wept as he told about, Esther, an African American woman who helped clean his family’s home. She had often shown him great kindness. On this particular day, she noticed Michael crying, sitting by himself. She went over and picked him up and held him on her lap. He recalled the warmth of her body and her tenderness. He had never forgotten her compassion. Because of his contact with Esther, Michael had rejected the prejudice that was being taught in his family. When he grew up, he became an active, committed ally in fighting racial discrimination, working in the business community and on the civil rights commission in his city.
Segregation is a crucial ingredient for preparing humans for racial prejudice. If they are allowed to interact intimately with members of the targeted group, and are not too disempowered from early childhood hurts, people would discover their common humanity. They would discover: my skin is just like yours, only a different color; we both have families that we love; we both feel pain and joy; we are more alike than we are different; our differences, though challenging at times, make us interesting and valuable.
Disempowerment of Children As much damage as misinformation and separation do to foster racial prejudice, perhaps the most important element for creating racial prejudice is the disempowerment of children. For the foundation of all prejudice is constructed from the unresolved hurts of early childhood. Being wounded mentally and/or physically as a child can lead to the compulsion to hurt and oppress others.
Cultural anthropologist, Ashley Montagu writes in his book: The Most Dangerous Myth, The Fallacy of Race, “Many persons have acquired during their early conditioning to find a scapegoat outside themselves upon which to blame their troubles or release their aggressive, frustrated feelings . . . Fundamentally, the problem (racial prejudice), is one of personality structure. The problem is really one of emotional integration and security, a problem of parent-child relationships . . . if the child is made to feel secure, he will not need to indulge in irrational discharges of hostility against the members of an out-group.
Montagu goes on to say, “And that is the important point to grasp about the nature of “race” prejudice, namely, that it is a socially sanctioned and socially learned attitude. It is a ready-made and culturally accepted outlet for various forms of hostility and feelings of frustration.”
The importance of the early disempowerment of children cannot be emphasized enough. The studies by Samuel Oliner, a social scientist, affirm this importance of the care of children in creating not only prejudice-free adults but people who will stand as allies to protect others.
Here is an excerpt from Can Goodness Be Taught, adapted from Matron Hunt’s book, The Compassionate Beast: What Science Is Discovering about the Humane Side of Humankind. Studies of the people who rescued Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe offer understanding about what factors help create such an altruistic nature in people.
Samuel Oliner, a social scientist whose family and friends were killed by Nazi soldiers during the Second World War, launched a five-year study about the people who risked their lives to rescue Jews. He gathered 600 detailed stories from aging rescuers from Poland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, as well as Germany. He and his staff also interviewed 200 people from the same areas and of the same age, class and background who had done nothing to save the Jews.
The differences between the two groups were analyzed. The finding cast light on how compassion can be built into human nature: One of the most striking discoveries was that how the rescuers had been disciplined as children was a crucial ingredient in whether a person was a rescuer or a bystander. The bystanders were more likely to have been beaten and abused by their parents. The rescuers’ parents, on the other hand, used reason to discipline, thereby instilling values as well as compassion.
Another important factor was the parents’ behavior toward others; kind, caring parents were the model for kind, caring children. Oliner also found that the people who rescued the Jews were not particularly adventurous or self-confident; nor were they more religious than the bystanders.
But in addition to thoughtful care as children and having parents who modeled compassion, these rescuers had learned to see others that were different from themselves as human beings because they had lived and worked around people who were in some ways different from themselves.
NEXT MONTH’S BLOG by Rita Starr Allies for Overcoming Racism