Racism is the big subject in the wake of the recent incident in Minneapolis where a police officer kneeled on the neck of a black man lying on t he ground with his hands handcuffed behind his back for nearly 9 minutes during which time he died. Understandably, people around the world have been enraged.
I think it is helpful to start our discussion of issues surrounding racism by considering what some of the basic concepts mean. To begin with, what is prejudice? To answer that we should first consider prejudice and racism. They are related concepts but they are not identical. They are siblings.
A prejudice is a pre-judgment about another person based on factors other than evidence or facts. It is a judgment that we make when we have a thought, or feeling, or belief about another person based on the group to which that person belongs, rather than the behaviour of that person. For example, the belief that black people or indigenous people are dangerous. Prejudice includes thoughts or feelings such as accepting stereotypes or profiles of groups that are based on generalizations about the group rather than basing such feelings on evidence presented. That is why a prejudice is always irrational. By definition it is not based on evidence and reasoning.
As Nathan Rutstein said, “Prejudice is an emotional committment to ignorance.”
As soon as one thinks about it one realizes that such prejudgments are not rational. They can’t be. Rational judgments are those that are based on evidence and are not made before seeing the evidence! It is very common for prejudices to be shared within a group. As Robin DiAngelo said in her book White Fragility, “Our prejudices tend to be shared because we swim in the same cultural water and absorb the same messages.”
Yet it is impossible not to have prejudices. As DiAngelo said,
“All humans have prejudices; we cannot avoid it. If I am aware a social group exists, I will have gained information about that group from society around me. This information helps me to make sense of the group from my cultural framework. People who claim not to have prejudices are demonstrating a profound lack of self-awareness. Ironically, they are also demonstrating the power of socialization–we have all been taught in schools, through movies, and from family members, teachers, and clergy that it is important not to be prejudiced. Unfortunately, the prevailing belief that prejudice is bad causes us to deny its unavoidable reality.”
No one wants to be considered bad. So we can’t be bad. That does not mean we should succumb to prejudice. On the contrary, we must fight it relentlessly because prejudice is so irrational and so pervasive, and so powerful. We must recognize that to the extent we make any decision or harbour any belief that is based on prejudice we are acting irrationally and could be poisoning someone else to follow our prejudice or harming someone who is the object of the prejudice. That is why we should constantly be on the lookout for prejudices and constantly try to minimize them and to deny their ability to affect us. As philosophers say, we should always try, to be an ideal observer—that is one who is thinking rationally and impartially about what is observed even when that is hard. We will never achieve the ideal of course, but we should always be trying to move in that direction of the ideal observer. If we do that we will improve our chances of finding the truth, but it is no guarantee that we will find it.
No one likes to be accused of being prejudiced. If we are we must admit we are to that extent irrational. This is particularly important when it comes to racial prejudice because this is considered such a serious character defect in modern society. If we admit we are racially prejudiced we are admitting that we are bad and ought to be ashamed of ourselves. That is never a comfortable thing to admit.
And that is why people will go to great lengths to convince us that they are not prejudiced. This is an important idea which I got from DiAngelo. I do not think she has all the answers, as I will get to, but this, I think is a fundamental concept that makes a lot of sense. Prejudice is a prejudgment that is ultimately irrational. And that is why we should try to avoid prejudices. But we are not hopeless just because we have a prejudice it just makes us human.