Overcoming Prejudice: How to Get Started
Last week, President Obama, in a surprise press conference, described his personal experience with prejudice, growing up in the United States. As a young African-American male he described walking into an elevator, and watching a white woman clutch her bag and hold her breath. He talked about walking down the street and hearing car doors lock. He talked about going to the mall, and being followed by security—just because of the color of his skin. And today, as a middle-aged man, he is the President of the United States of America.
He realized that when he was a young man, he could have been “profiled” as a potential threat if he had been in a white community after dark dressed in a “hoodie”. He expressed his worries about young African-American men, recognizing their vulnerability, even in a land where the chief executive is black. Some things have changed, but some things have remained the same.
If we are honest with ourselves, deeply ingrained attitudes, beliefs, and reflexes towards minority groups are part of all of us. If you are a member of racial, ethnic, sexual or religious minority, you have encountered these attitudes in your everyday life.
I grew up in New York City, which is a very diverse. I rarely encountered prejudice related to my religious background (I am Jewish). But later when I moved away, I experienced anti-Semitic comments and attitudes. When I moved to Washington State with my young family, my 7-year-old daughter came home one day in tears. She explained to me how another girl told her she couldn’t play with her because she was Jewish. My daughter was confused and hurt. As a psychologist, I have had patients tell me how they were “Jewed” down by a salesman. They had no idea that I was Jewish. My wife, who has a more common last name, hears these comments regularly. It never ceases to cause her pain and distress.
Racial, ethnic, and religious stereotypes follow us wherever we go. These visceral reactions, especially fear, are not rational, but represent what we have been taught and what we have learned. They don’t necessarily result from what we think or believe.
So much has changed in my lifetime. Growing up in the 50’s and 60’s, I never imagined that I would see a black president in South Africa much less in our own country! When Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, I knew that anything was possible. I have seen the Berlin Wall fall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Washington State gay marriage is legal! I am hopeful that in my lifetime I will see peace in the Mideast. I know that unexpected change can happen overnight.
I am forever hopeful.
At the end of President Obama’s talk, he asked all of us to look within and talk to our neighbors and friends about these important issues. Beliefs and attitudes can’t be legislated away. Laws may change our behavior, but not our gut responses.
So where do we start? Look within; share your experiences with prejudice with your friends and neighbors. Discuss these issues with your children, be honest with yourself, and allow the winds of change to move all of us to be the people that we want to be.
Let's hear your thoughts and experiences!