Find Your Own Prejudice

It’s this simple: everyone is prejudiced. Prejudice is a bias in the way your brain processes information, it is a part of the way the human brain is wired. Prejudice is when your thoughts about a person are affected by previous experiences or unconscious judgements. Once you accept that they are embedded in the way your brain works, you have taken your first step to be free of them. You can now seek out your own prejudices, and destroy them. But don’t get too excited, it’s not destruction by atomic bomb — not a singular victory over a powerful enemy in one cataclysmic moment, it’s a steady reframing, a glacially slow erosion of a jagged peak. The awful, sharp edges are the first to go, but the bulk of the mountain may be there forever.

Prejudices make life worse, for everyone. They make the prejudiced person less emotionally available to vast swaths of humanity, less likely to hear important information, and more likely to write off a good interaction as “the exception.” For those against whom the prejudice is aimed, opportunities are more difficult to come by, it is more difficult to be heard, appreciated, valued. We are facing hard times, and to ignore a good idea because it came from someone who looks different is not a recipe for success.

I was raised in San Diego, CA. When I first began realizing that prejudice was all around me, I wondered what that meant about me. If I can see prejudice in everyone around me, doesn’t that probably mean it’s in me as well? Where I grew up, there were three major sources of prejudices that I identified along the way. Prejudice against women: the thought that women are worth fundamentally less than men. Prejudice against Mexicans: the cultural insistence that Mexican immigrants and people of Mexican descent are lazy and stupid. Prejudice against blacks; the “basic biology” that blacks are less-evolved than whites, more violent, less intelligent, less capable of empathy.

The story in each case is different, and takes on some of the cultural tenor of the time in which they began. They are also so grotesque at their core that they make me uncomfortable just writing them down. These are some of the foundational stones upon which we have built our entire world. There’s a long way to go…

Nevertheless, no matter how hard I tried, I could not find much of these in myself. Prejudice is injected early in your development, but my childhood included people that bucked these cultural messages. I reasoned that because of these amazing people, I just didn’t have these prejudices (this is almost certainly incorrect) but I kept my eyes open. Looking elsewhere, I kept my internal search for prejudice going. What was I looking for exactly? How would I know if I’ve found it? I kept asking myself two questions: “How do I feel like interacting with this person?” and “How would I interact with this person if they looked more like me?” If the answers to these questions differs in a weird way — I’ve found an example of prejudice. (Sidenote: there are other forms of prejudice, they are just more difficult to identify and resolve on your own)

The first time I noticed a weird difference was when I was eating at a restaurant, and I was served by a young man who looked to be of Eastern-Indian descent, but who spoke perfect English. Normally, when I interact with servers at a restaurant I go through the same basic script: banter, ask what they like, and order that. I noticed that I didn’t really want to follow that script with this man. I’m prejudiced against Indian people. On some fundamental, sub-conscious level, I wasn’t as interested in his opinion as I normally would be. It was a complete surprise to me! I love Indian food, culture, and a have had delightful interactions with many Indian people. This was exactly the kind of insidious prejudice that is at the heart of the problem. If pressed, I could easily have said “no, I just didn’t feel like asking this time” — but I knew that wasn’t really what was going on.

I had made an extremely important discovery, because it demonstrated to me that the search can work. It took almost a decade, but it meant that I am able to see this in myself. It meant that I was able to fundamentally rewire my brain in order to identify my own prejudice. It meant the kettle can look down, and see that it too is covered in soot. It also gave me a tool other than self-reflection: scripted interactions. See, we’re fighting a very difficult problem here: if you go your whole life and never identify prejudice in yourself it could be because of two things. You could be fundamentally unprejudiced, or you could be incapable of seeing prejudice in yourself. Our self-serving brains are unbelievably quick to jump to “cool, I’m not prejudiced.” There’s a whole book on it; it is fantastic: Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).

So, what happens next? How do you erode prejudice? The wonderful mental-health technique called “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy”. There’s a lot written about it that is much better what I can do here, but the long and the short of it is that it is a backed-by-science technique for changing your own behaviors and beliefs. It’s pretty simple: consciously and deliberately do the thing you decide you “should do” and sit with the mental discomfort and dissonance that comes from it. In my case, I had to walk through my normal script, even though it felt so strange doing it with this man.

Having a “formula” for interactions makes it easier for me to detect and fight my own prejudices. Having found a more-sensitive tool than introspection, I suspect that I will notice more subtle prejudices, paying special attention in the areas that I wrote off earlier in my life. Do I really interact with every person in a way that reflects my higher-level, fundamental, value of them? When I meet unfamiliar people do I naturally follow the new “script” for meeting people, or do I get derailed by some formerly unnoticed (or new) force or prejudice?

The kind of scripted interactions that I’m talking about aren’t robotic — it’s much more of a “themed, guided improvisation”. For example, if you’re a teacher and you see new students in office hours all the time, think about how you want that interaction to go in advance. If it were me, I would want to remind myself that all students have value, and are on their own path (I have found that I easily devalue someone if they demonstrate a lack of my kind of cleverness). Then I would greet them, do my best to remember their name, get a quick history and context of their learning path, and then address whatever brought them to my office. Obviously, the script will look different for every kind of interaction, and is totally reasonable to change. If you find yourself wanting to change it while you’re talking to someone, though, think deeply — you may have just stumbled upon your own prejudice!

And that’s it. I am not un-prejudiced now, but it will be infinitesimally easier next time to interact naturally with people who look Indian. It also made me realize how easy it was for my own brain to hide prejudice from me. It took me meeting a very-similar-to-me Indian guy, under the exactly right circumstances, for me to realize it. Now that I have realized it, and taken ownership of the problem, I am ever-so-slightly less likely to ignore feedback, input, ideas from people who are different from me. I will be more likely to weigh their ideas and personalities for their own worth, and not based on some historical thumb pressing gently but insistently on the scale.