Patterns to Practice Seeing
1. Practice identifying patterns at the group (rather than individual) level. For example, in workplace meetings or other public spaces, practice seeing which groups are included and which are not.
2. Practice naming people by their key social groups. For example, “Tina, a white able-bodied cis-woman, went to the store.” Notice your own as well as others’ levels of comfort.
Prejudice and Discrimination
“I was taught never to judge a book by its cover.”
This chapter explains two key interrelated terms: prejudice and discrimination. We explain that prejudice and discrimination cannot be avoided; we all hold prejudices and we all discriminate based on our prejudices. We argue that the first step in minimizing discrimination is to be able to identify (rather than deny) our prejudices.
Vocabulary to practice using: prejudice; discrimination; implicit bias
Imagine that you are on a hiring committee to identify the best candidate to join your school faculty. Ms. Hardy, the principal who chairs the committee, reports that there are too many applicants for the one position and that the committee needs to thin out the applicant pool. As she is distributing the files for review, she says, “Oh, here’s a male applicant. We definitely want to consider this one, since we have so few male teachers at our school.” As she says this, she is thinking, I really want to get some male teachers in here; just the other day a parent was complaining that there weren’t any male role models for the boys.
Liz, a teacher on the committee, thinks, Oh great, a man. That’s all we need. He’ll probably be the vice principal by next year; and says, “Yes, but there are many other dynamics associated with what a candidate brings.”
Wendy, another teacher, thinks, I hope he’s gay; men teaching at the elementary level usually are. He’ll probably be a blast to work with; and says, “Yeah, we should look closely at his application. And it would be so great to have more diversity around sexual orientation too.”
Mary, another teacher, thinks, Uh-oh, he’s probably gay … that’s going to be an issue for a lot of the parents; and says, “Yes, but we should consider how the candidate fits the culture of our students’ families. In the past, we’ve had problems around gay teachers.”
Liz exclaims, “Whoa, this is prejudice!”
Everyone is stunned by this charge. Wendy retorts, “That’s a terrible accusation! We have a process here, and policies that we will follow to ensure that every candidate is evaluated fairly. Besides, Mary and I don’t have a prejudiced bone in our bodies!”
What is Prejudice?
This vignette illustrates some of the many complicated dimensions associated with critical social justice. While most people want to be fair, we can’t help but have preconceived notions—prejudices—about other people based on their social groups (in this case, the candidate’s gender). At the same time, we often feel deeply hurt and insulted when someone suggests that we have prejudices at all, let alone that they are showing. To gain a more complex understanding of the dynamics in the above vignette, we must first examine the relationship between two interrelated concepts: prejudice and discrimination.
Prejudice: Learned prejudgment about members of social groups to which we don’t belong. Prejudice is based on limited knowledge or experience with the group. Simplistic judgments and assumptions are made and projected onto everyone from that group.
Prejudice is learned prejudgment toward social others and refers to internal thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and assumptions based on the groups to which they belong. While everyone has prejudices based on distinctive experiences that are unique to them—for example, someone got into a legal dispute with a cashier and now doesn’t trust cashiers—here we are concerned with the collective prejudices we learn from the culture at large about our own and other social groups.
These prejudices can be either positive or negative. However, they are always unfair, because they are not earned by the individual but granted or imposed based on ideas about the group that the individual belongs to. For example, I prefer to teach math to Chinese heritage students because I assume they will do well on the math test, and I don’t like to teach math to White female students because I assume they will do poorly. While the prejudice I have toward the Chinese heritage students appears to be positive, it is still unfair in that it isn’t earned, will interfere with my ability to make valid assessments, and sets one racial group up against others.
Prejudice manifests in attitudes about an individual, but it is based on our ideas about the group to which that individual belongs. Prejudice is part of how we learn to sort people into categories that make sense to us
(boy/girl, old/young, rich/poor). Although this is a process necessary for learning, our categorizations are not neutral. We are socialized to perceive and value these categories differently.
For example, take the categories of “attractive” and “unattractive.” While there is some variation in opinion between people, on the level of collective socialization, there are sanctioned norms of beauty constantly communicated to us through major institutions such as the entertainment industry. Media-based representations present a consistent image of who the attractive people are, what they look like, and what we can do to look more like them (if you doubt this, just scan the magazine rack at your local grocery store).
Most of us are acutely aware that there are social benefits that go with being in the “attractive” group and social penalties for being in the “unattractive” group. These benefits and penalties are communicated to us explicitly—effusive praise for a celebrity’s beauty, magazine covers featuring the “100 Most Beautiful People,” the “20 Hottest Bodies,” the open ridicule of unattractive people, more praise for us when we “dress up”—and implicitly through larger salaries, career advancement, better evaluations, and other research-documented benefits that accrue to those considered attractive (Hamermesh & Parker, 2005; Rhode, 2010).
These definitions are not natural but are specific to a given cultural context. They change over time and our perceptions change with them, indicating the learned nature of our prejudices. For example, in the United States Marilyn Monroe was once considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. However, while she might still epitomize the White, blonde ideal of feminine beauty, she would be considered overweight today and therefore would not have the beauty status that she held over 50 years ago.
Prejudices begin as stereotypes. While many use these terms interchangeably, there are important nuances. Stereotypes refer to reduced or simplified characteristics attributed to a group. For example, if we ask someone to describe Americans and Canadians, they may answer that Americans are industrious, independent, and like fast food, while Canadians are polite, love hockey, and end their sentences with “eh.” When we ask what elementary school teachers are like, we may have ideas that they are nurturing and loving. These kinds of simplifications are either a set of characteristics attributed to a group (elementary school teachers are nurturing), or a feature of some members of a group that stands out (Canadian speech, American eating habits).
People often say that there is always a kernel of truth to stereotypes, but this belief has more to do with the ways in which stereotypes work and
less to do with their validity. For example, although some Canadians end some of their sentences with “eh,” most Canadians do not. Yet this distinction is what helps us make sense of the category “Canadian” as distinct from the category “American.” This is especially easy to see in the realm of media where having, for example, a character say “eh” establishes that character as Canadian. For an American watching these movies, this stereotype is reinforced again and again. Because many Americans may not know many Canadians, we don’t have much else to draw on and over time come to believe this is how Canadians talk. The stereotype is now formed in our minds and will appear to be true because we are drawing on the fixed representation we have seen so regularly. When we encounter people who don’t fit the stereotype, we either don’t notice or we view these people as exceptions. On the other hand, when we encounter people who do fit the stereotype, even if we encounter them very rarely, they stand out to us and reinforce the stereotype as true. Therefore, if we hold this stereotype and visit Canada, we will notice any Canadian we hear say “eh” and disregard the countless Canadians we meet who don’t, thus reinforcing our belief in this particular stereotype.
Prejudice comes into play when we add values to our stereotypes. Let’s put stereotypes together with values, using the example of “elementary school teacher.” If I am a parent going to meet my son’s 2nd-grade teacher for the first time, I would expect to meet a female (as the vast majority of elementary teachers are female). If instead I meet a male, I may wonder if he is gay (a common stereotype about male elementary school teachers) and worry that if he is, he will be an inappropriate role model for my son (a common prejudice about gay men). This worry develops from the interaction between stereotypes about male elementary school teachers and the values associated with those stereotypes in our culture, leading to a prejudicial attitude that my son’s gay teacher will be an unsuitable role model.
PERSPECTIVE CHECK: If I am a gay parent, or have close relationships with many gay people whom I advocate for, I am more likely to be informed and educated on the issues and thus not have the same worry.
Notice how conceptions about the teacher are interwoven in important ways with conceptions about gender roles. These conceptions are important because they are the basis of our evaluations for what is “normal”; every teacher we encounter who does not match our internal definition of “teacher” will be evaluated differently than the “normal”
teachers who do match them. These evaluations don’t just distinguish between who is deemed normal and who isn’t, but also influence our assessments of other important social values such as character. When we assign character values, our stereotypes have moved into prejudice.
Many of us think that we don’t hold prejudicial thoughts against people. Because we think this, we see ourselves as free of prejudice. But the process is much more complicated. The reality is that no one can avoid prejudice because it is built into our socialization. All humans have prejudices, but they are so normalized and taken for granted that they are often very difficult to identify. This is one of the challenges of critical social justice literacy: developing the critical thinking that would enable us to bring our prejudices to the surface and reflect upon and challenge them. Yet society tells us that it is bad to have prejudices, and thus we feel pressure to deny them.
However, because social acceptance of prejudices varies over time, we don’t feel compelled to deny all of our prejudices. In fact, when we hold prejudices against certain groups—groups that it is socially acceptable to hold prejudices against—we often don’t see them as prejudices at all, but as facts. For example, not too long ago it was socially acceptable for White people to openly admit holding prejudicial beliefs about Black people, which they saw as justified because most White people believed that Black racial inferiority was simply true. Today this belief is understood to be untrue, and to admit to holding such a belief is no longer considered acceptable in most circles. However, admitting to prejudices against people considered overweight (especially women) is currently acceptable. And in fact, not only are these prejudices acceptable, but many magazines, for example, openly ridicule women perceived as overweight.
While there are health risks to obesity, the beauty and entertainment industries are invested in selling us the idea of fat as ugly, as undisciplined, and as worthy of contempt. These ideas allow us to rationalize our prejudice. The economic interest in maintaining these prejudices is so deep that they are marketed to all people. Consequently, girls who have not even reached puberty are socialized into a culture of dieting, and very few people feel satisfied with their bodies regardless of their size or health (Grogan, 2016; Levin & Kilbourne, 2008). These industries relentlessly present the image of the ideal body, and this ideal has become increasingly unattainable and in some contexts (such as the modeling industry) unhealthy. In fact, the image is so unrealistic that the magazine cover models themselves don’t actually look like the images presented; images are routinely digitally modified to reshape their bodies, decrease their weight, enhance their breasts, remove their pores, and more.
This leads to deep body dissatisfaction, which in turn translates into billions of dollars for the beauty and diet industries.
What is Discrimination?
The term discrimination has multiple meanings, including having discriminating (or refined) taste in music or food. In critical social justice studies, we use it to refer to action based on prejudices toward social others. How we think about groups of people determines how we act toward them; Discrimination occurs when we act on our prejudices. Our prejudice toward others guides our thoughts, organizes our values, and influences our actions. These prejudgments, when left unexamined, necessarily shape our behaviors. Once we act on our prejudices, we are discriminating. Acts of discrimination can include ignoring, avoiding, excluding, ridicule, jokes, slander, threats, and violence.
Discrimination: Action based on prejudice toward social others. When we act on our prejudgments, we are discriminating.
Consider this example: You are at a play and you notice that the person in the seat next to yours is fumbling with her program. You turn to look at her and realize that she is blind, which is signaled to you by the white cane by her side. Once you realize that she is blind, she is placed in your mind into a new social category that triggers a new set of possible responses to her. These responses could range from ignoring (because you are not sure of the proper way to communicate with someone who is blind) or avoidance (if you find her blindness discomfiting), to an offer of help (based on an assumption that she will need it). If you decide to offer your assistance, you may, without even realizing it, speak more slowly than you normally would to an adult stranger, reflecting a common (but unaware) assumption that a visual impairment also implies cognitive impairments.
PERSPECTIVE CHECK: The example discussed in the text assumes the perspective of an able-bodied person who has not thought deeply about ableism. If you come from the perspective of a person with a disability (or have a person with a disability in your life whom you advocate for), you are more likely to be informed on the issue and thus interact more constructively.
While you might insist that you would never interact differently with a blind person than with anyone else, research supports the prediction that you would (Dovidio, Glick, & Rudman, 2005; Greenwald & Krieger,
2006). That doesn’t make you a bad person; our prejudices and the discriminatory behaviors they produce are often not consciously known to us. Nor do we have to be aware of them in order for them and their effects to be real.
The prejudice that leads to the differential treatment we name here— either ignoring/avoiding the blind woman or offering unsolicited help and speaking as if to a child—is not unique to us, and can be predicted precisely because of that fact. The messages that reinforce prejudice toward blind people are everywhere and affect all of us. This prejudice in turn informs our behavior. Consider representations of people with disabilities in media. Inspirational heroes are valorized for having “overcome” the tragedy of disability; horror movies wherein the villain’s ability to scare victims is connected to “freaky” eyes or disfigurements of the body; and admonishments to children to avoid activities that could cause them to go blind (implying that this would be the worst possible condition to have).
When we add the fact that most sighted people don’t know any blind people (because in our society most blind people are separated out and sent to special schools and workplaces), you ensure the likelihood of problematic ideas and interactions. Notice that blind people (and people with other perceived exceptionalities) are both highly visible in the ways their blindness is amplified in films and popular culture, and at the same time invisible in that they are often separated from the mainstream. This dynamic sets us up to rely on misinformation and starts the cycle of prejudice and discrimination. We are not saying every person will discriminate in these specific ways against the woman in the theater, but many will. In addition, given the dynamics of prejudice and discrimination, our own personal assessment of whether we will is simply not reliable.