Feeling prejudice against someone because of their race is pretty foreign to me, but this past weekend I was blindsided by a tsunami of my own prejudice.
My husband and I had finished a walk in Acadia National Park near where we live, and I heard a group of people speaking Russian – a language I’ve studied, and which I love.
Suddenly, my heart started pounding, and anger surged through my body. My mind immediately jumped to judgmental questions: Did they support Putin? What were they doing to help Ukrainians? Why were they going on a leisurely walk in Acadia instead of risking their comfort to end the brutality of their president? And how was it that I – a person who adores a young man in Russia whom my family tried to adopt for many years when he was a boy (before Russia closed international adoptions) – could suddenly be Russophobic?
While all these thoughts, feelings, and questions were swirling through my racing brain, one of the men approached me to ask a question about the hike we’d just been on. I stuffed my prejudiced feelings down and reminded myself that I knew nothing about these people.
Mentally noting my own hypocrisy, I realized that I had not asked myself what I was doing to help Ukraine at that moment, having just gone on my own leisurely walk. As friendly as I could be, I advised these Russian-speaking visitors about the trail.
“Wow,” I reflected after they’d walked away, “this is what it’s like to feel prejudice.” It’s ugly. It’s visceral. It’s powerful.
So how can we combat it? My answer is this: Strive to treat prejudice in yourself as a problem to be solved rather than a feeling to be indulged. You can do this in three ways:
1. Cultivate in yourself the best qualities of human beings. In my role as a humane educator, I’ve asked thousands of people what they think are the best qualities of human beings – which is one of the definitions of the word “humane.” No one has ever said hatred or bigotry.
Over and over, people express the same things: compassion, integrity, kindness, courage, generosity. If you find yourself feeling prejudiced, you have a choice about whether to foster the ugliness or nourish worthwhile qualities. You can (and should) then model these good qualities for others, especially children.
2. Harness your reason. Prejudice means pre-judgment. Although we may know nothing about another person, we may still pre-judge them based on our beliefs, values, experiences, and mindsets, almost all of which we’ve been taught.
I used my reason to recognize that I knew nothing about the Russian-speaking people I met, and then I acted with respect and kindness and did not allow myself to succumb to my initial pre-judgments and behave rudely. Consider where your prejudices come from and investigate their causes so that you can find ways to take the next, critically-important step – becoming solutionary.
3. Be solutionary. Prejudices held by those in positions of power can and do lead to systemic injustices. These injustices may then reinforce prejudices. This terrible feedback loop can be interrupted by solutionary thinking and action. Once we harness our reason, understand the causes of our prejudices, and recognize the systems that create and perpetuate the problems that often lead to prejudice, we are better able to redirect our energies to actually dismantling unjust systems. This is what it means to be a solutionary, and this is the antidote not only to personal prejudice but also – and most importantly – to societal injustice.
As Robert Heinlein wrote, “You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can convince one man by logic.” Not only is it difficult to personally harness reason and embrace logic, prejudices are being actively fomented – especially online – by bigots who target both disgruntled adults and isolated teenagers. When prejudice is encouraged and indulged, it can then turn from an individual failing to group and political influence.
While you will likely feel prejudice in your lifetime, you can resist it and commit to treating prejudice as the problem it is. If you find yourself doubting the importance of identifying and fighting prejudice within yourself, try calling to mind a time when you were on the receiving end of prejudice.
How did it make you feel? Do you want any portion of your legacy to include causing others to feel similarly? Your personal efforts, and the efforts you take to help others resist, will help prevent individual prejudice from coalescing into group bigotry.