The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination

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With all the wisdom and knowledge actively disseminated in today’s social media circles, issues such as prejudice and discrimination can ultimately boil down to a lack of common sense, at least to a certain extent.

More often than not, an offensive comment or disrespectful remark is the product of ignorance; ignorance of a privileged existence and of what could be a different future. It’s quite like the culture of poverty, theorised by Oscar Lewis, an American anthropologist, in the latter half of the 20th century. What Lewis theorised, based on studies in the Central Americas region of poverty-stricken families, was that an impoverished individual has the mindset that they are and will always be impoverished. These thoughts are then transferred to their attitudes and behaviours, subsequently creating a lifestyle of poverty that becomes near impossible to break loose from. It’s also passed onto children, and any support or guidance offered is effectively rejected by the need to validate the feelings of hopelessness and despair they inevitably experience. Prejudice works quite similarly, with pre-existing notions and beliefs establishing arrogance, which in turn prevents people from educating themselves of anything outside of themselves.

The reason I mention this is because it’s often said that children are not born with preconceived prejudices, but that they are only conditioned to see the world a certain way due to external influences – in other words, nurture trumps nature. However, I believe that through growth and sufficient awareness of your environment, one does tend to end up seeing a more favourable explanation of the workings of a society. Unless of course, they ignore it and continue to hold their controversial opinions.

Prejudice and discrimination are essentially the same. While prejudice is an implicit concept that has to do with mindsets, attitudes and mental frameworks, discrimination is an animated version of this, which we see happening around us. As we do know, discrimination, or the overt expression of prejudiced behaviour, is basically what could potentially cause damage. Surely, having a prejudiced “mindset” isn’t going to do any harm; you can’t see a mindset. However, this is where things need to change. Most people don’t realise their subconscious prejudices, which ultimately become noticeable when they are in certain social circumstances that require them to be free of prejudicial thoughts for optimal and favourable functioning. Most discussion of the topic has been around the social and psychological harm caused by prejudiced behaviour to the victims of it, but rarely are we reinforced of the harm that it can cause to those who hold these attitudes. A prejudiced attitude, if left unattended, may elevate into various forms of social fear, such as agoraphobia or xenophobia, thereby being seriously debilitating to those affected by it.

Another way of looking at prejudicial behaviour is as a defence mechanism, responding to an individual’s low self-esteem. A lot of the explicit forms of prejudice that we see around us are a direct result of self-doubt. Take cyberbullying, for instance. It’s an ever-prevalent issue in the modern world, with research compiled by the likes of Pew Research Centre suggesting that victims of cyberbullying are more likely to be female, gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender youth. Online bullies may use their screens as shields while putting their feelings of inferiority on the back burner. Rather than confronting what’s within themselves, they transfer these feelings onto their victims. This phenomenon has been identified in academic research studies on the topic. For example, a 2015 study by University of Central Lancashire academics Gayle Brewer and Jade Kerslake, concluded that low self-esteem correlates with a higher likelihood of being a cyberbullying perpetrator, although not to the same extent that low self-esteem increases the chance of also being a cyberbullying victim.

Credit: Avila Diana Chidume.
Credit: Avila Diana Chidume.

Along with the present understandings of the detrimental effects of racism, sexism and religious hatred, to become the sensitive and understanding society that we aspire to be, it’s important firstly to educate ourselves of how our attitudes could harm not only others, but also ourselves. We must also attempt to modify the less favourable mental states of people affected by prejudiced thoughts and opinions, as these alone are toxic.

In a world battling many forms of discrimination, it is easy to lay back, shut ourselves out and convince ourselves that if it doesn’t concern us, we don’t have to be involved. However, this is only testament to our privilege, which could easily be taken for the ignorance of the struggles that certain groups and individuals go through every single day.

We don’t have to hold these prejudiced attitudes to be involved in these discussions since it’s beneficial to evaluate one’s thoughts and opinions on such key issues facing the world as we move forward. And if nothing, I, for one, am sure it will make casual discussion over dinner just that much more entertaining to be a part of.

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