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Oct 12 2005

The struggle against stereotypes and prejudices – part 3

(For earlier installments in this series, see part 1 and part 2)

The problem with fighting prejudice is that we think that conceding that we have any prejudices at all is in itself shameful. So to avoid being thought badly of, we deny that we have them or avoid conversations that run any risk that we might unwittingly reveal our prejudices. This is why it is so hard to have an honest discussion about race in America (or most places for that matter). Any discussion that does take place either ends up with people holding hands and singing “We shall overcome” or “Kumbaya” or uttering platitudes about everyone being the same or being guarded and defensive.

It always amazes me, for example, when I hear people say that they do not see the ‘color’ of people. For example, I have done a lot of work with the public education system in urban areas in and around Cleveland. There are immediate color issues that arise in schools because the majority of teachers are white and many of the students are black. This imbalance carries with the ever-present danger that any teacher-student conflict will be interpreted in race terms. Teachers often try to preempt this by saying that they do not ‘see’ their students in terms of their color. But I often wonder if that is really possible or if they are just trying to fool themselves.

I think that they say this to imply that they are not prejudiced. But I find it hard to accept that people literally do not see color, when people’s skin color is such an important factor in our lives. I remember someone once trying to help me identify someone else who had attended a meeting by describing that person. I was given various pieces of information but at one point I asked “Was she black?” And the person said “yes.” If I had been given that piece of obviously useful information right at the beginning, I could have identified the person much earlier. I think the reason that my friend had not volunteered this important identifying marker right up front was due to the fear that if he had said so, that meant that the person’s color had been noted by him and thus he was prejudiced.

But this is raising the bar for evidence of lack of prejudice to an absurd and unreachable level. Of course we register the color of the people we meet. How can we not when skin color is such a major part of our political and social dialogue? When I go into a roomful of people, I immediately register people on the basis of their skin color and gender and age and size (height/weight) because these are the major identifying categories that I use. Interestingly, I find that I do not register hair or eye color, although many other people do. When someone asks me if so-and-so has blue eyes or brown hair, I find that I cannot recall this kind of detail at all. This may be because in Sri Lanka, everyone has black hair and dark brown eyes so we never use hair and eye color as identifying markers, and I have not acquired that habit. But although we are all brown skinned, there was a wide range of shades and skin color is an important feature.

If we really want to have honest discussions about race we need to start by acknowledging that it is natural to believe in stereotypes and to have prejudices. By natural, I do not mean that it is admirable (it is not) or that we can do nothing about it (we can). We can and should strive to eliminate such thinking. But at this stage of our social development, both individually and as a society, we have stereotypes and prejudices and it is not use denying them. It may be more helpful to simply concede that we have them and think about how we can prevent ourselves from taking actions based on them.

Fortunately in my own case, I have been lucky to have worked with people with whom I can discuss issues of race honestly, and am able to ask them questions about customs, practices, and behavior that increase my awareness of the culture of other communities. This has enabled me to increase my personal store of information about others that I hope will slowly eat away at the false knowledge structures that were built on inadequate data. But it is foolish to think that this has enabled me to eliminate all my prejudices. At best, it has helped me to remove some of my major misapprehensions.

To be continued tomorrow…

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