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Prejudice

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

The term "prejudice" generally refers to prior judgment. It occurs when someone enters into a situation already knowing how they will respond to that situation based on preconceived, out of date and often erroneous ideas, instead of judging the situation on its merits as it unfolds in the present moment. As used in popular culture, the term has a more specific meaning, having to do with hateful attitudes and discriminatory practices which one group holds about another group purely on the basis of that other group's skin color, religious beliefs, cultural or ethnic heritage, family design, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status/wealth, etc.

prejudice street signPrejudice and discrimination are related, yet different terms. Prejudice involves preconceived negatively-biased thoughts or beliefs about individuals who belong to a particular group. Discrimination is unfair behavior or action that is motivated by prejudiced beliefs.

Children will model what they see and hear their parents and caregivers and other close adults say and do. They soak in the assumptions and prejudices around them and take them in by way of vicarious learning (in which they model the behaviors and attitudes they see) without thinking about what they are learning with any critical awareness. Children who observe their parents (or aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, clergy, friends, etc.) making racist, prejudiced remarks or acting in prejudiced and discriminatory ways learn to be racist, prejudiced and discriminatory in those same ways. Such children may find themselves discriminating against others "just because". They won't have thought such behavior through carefully; they will simply act it out on the unjustified assumption that such behavior is justified. In light of how easily children pick up prejudicial attitudes and behaviors from the adults in their lives, it is vital that parents and caregivers closely examine their own beliefs, comments, and behaviors and ask themselves what their children are seeing, learning and copying.

Prejudices are often based on fears and incorrect beliefs about a set of people. The antidote to prejudice is thus for prejudiced people to become more familiar with what they fear, so that their beliefs can be corrected with actual data from the real world. For instance, children raised in a suburb permeated with a diffuse fear of "the homeless" will not likely become more comfortable interacting with homeless people simply by reading about them. It is instead important that such children actually have multiple opportunities to interact with homeless people so as to understand them and their socially needy situation in a direct fashion. Multiple opportunities are necessary for real learning to occur so as to insure that first impressions, which may be negative, do not come to dominate the overall learning children accomplish.

Adults and children both can become more familiar with ethnic and economic diversity by putting themselves into situations where they will interact with diverse people and cultures. They can learn about other cultures and traditions through books, tapes, and other materials from the library. Meeting new and different people through social experiences such as school, camp, sports teams, and other activities and classes is even more valuable than reading about them. Direct experience with people from different cultures and ethnicities is the best and most fun way to learn to appreciate and to embrace other people's beliefs, customs, and values.

Prejudice and discrimination occur at different levels of society. Prejudiced behavior may be institutionalized, and expressed in the form of discriminatory policies and laws enforced by government or schools. It may also occur at the level of individuals, in which case it becomes a form of bullying.

All caregivers, be they parents, family members or school and community leaders in child-facing roles (e.g., teachers, coaches, school staff, etc.) should reach out to children who are targets of prejudice. Children who are harassed should be told through words and actions that prejudicial beliefs and discriminatory behaviors are not acceptable. Appropriate and effective action should be taken to shut down sources of prejudice as much as is possible. Prejudice should not be allowed to define and invade children's sense of self-worth.

As is the case with any bullying, children who are targets of prejudice are often negatively affected by the experience. It is not uncommon for such children to feel hopeless and enraged, and to experience depressed, anxious and angry moods with which they may be hard-pressed to articulate or manage. Parents and caregivers working with discriminated against children can do them a great service by helping such children to give voice to their reactions in open, non-violent ways. Adult modeling of how to discuss angry feelings without actually becoming violent is especially important and needed as children may have never seen that this is possible before and therefore have implicitly concluded that they are doomed to act their anger out in a self-destructive fashion rather than put it to productive use.

It is also helpful for adults to help children to become able to see the prejudice they face in its historical perspective. To this end, parents and caregivers can teach the history of the discrimination, and talk about how it has personally affected them. It is a small (but real) comfort for children to realize that they have not been personally attacked, but rather are experiencing something that the entire group of their people face. Adults can emphasize the irrational and faulty nature of the prejudice, and counter it with examples of the many positive aspects of the maligned culture so that children can feel real pride in their identity. In such discussions, adults should highlight positive family or cultural accomplishments to help enhance children's cultural identity and pride. Notable individuals who exemplify cultural or ethnic values can be introduced or discussed to further children's identification. Often, books, videos, and other types of age-appropriate media are available which tell positive and empowering stories to help with this communication of cultural pride.

Parents and caregivers should be careful to model positive, productive, non-violent methods for dealing with continuing instances of prejudice. If children continue to be subject to prejudice in the classroom, team, or in other group settings, caregivers should advocate in a positive non-violent way on behalf of their children and their culture to shut down and silence the source of the prejudice. Similarly, if parents and caregivers overhear their children promoting discrimination or cultural stereotypes, they should similarly offer an immediate correction and explain why such actions or words are inappropriate and harmful. An opportunity for extended discussion of why such word and behaviors are hurtful is also important to provide to children so as to provide them the context and perspective they need to understand the prejudice. Using a consequence and/or learning activity to teach children the error of their ways can prevent future occurrences of this type of behavior.

Depending on the family's beliefs about how best to fight prejudice, parents and caregivers may want to consider moving children to a more diverse and accepting school, team, or activity if other reasonable efforts to shut down prejudice fail. There are occasions where the sacrifices necessary to win on principle are too great to expect a child to reasonably bear. In such cases, it is in the best interests of the individual child to move that child to a new, less prejudiced environment.