How to discern one’s own racial and ethnic prejudices

 

line art of people of different ethnicities holding hands around a globe

Wars of aggression for land acquisition and/or subjugation of people span history, creating political and economic inequalities that result in tensions, which in turn lead to prejudice that becomes deeply ingrained. This prejudice gets passed on broadly through resulting cultures, especially through families that acquire ethnic or racial biases. This aspect of racism tends to be semi-conscious. A deeper level of racism finds its place in the unconscious: Either a series of personal assaults by members of the “other group” or a single terrifying incident can instill fear that manifests itself in automatic, unconscious associations that get triggered when encountering a person from that “other group.” Contemporary neuroscience using electrodes that identify activity within specific portions of the brain provide evidence of this. Only as we become conscious of our own racism can we remedy it. Here are some guidelines to help us discern our own racial and ethnic prejudices:

  1. For a concise summary about stereotypes, prejudices, and associated terminology, click http://www.tolerance.org/Hidden-bias.
  2. Begin to assemble a list of reflective questions such as: Looking back over my life, starting with early childhood, what can I remember about becoming aware of racial and ethnic prejudice? To what extent has my awareness of prejudice in society come from family members? from friends? from schoolmates? from societal norms? or from a work environment? Have I ever observed racial discrimination in church? How strongly has knowledge of pervasive racial and ethnic bias influenced me? Has my formal education shaped my attitudes toward ethnic and racial groups in any way? To what extent has possible racial prejudice within me resulted from specific personal experiences or public incidents? How have I responded to racial jokes? Could racial language in stories, games, songs, movies, or theater have affected the development of  my feelings toward any “other groups?” How has my life experience influenced my feelings and treatment of people in these “other groups?” In what ways have these various factors, accumulated over time, affected my comfort level with members of different races and ethnic groups and the manner in which I interact with them? At the present time, to what extent do I feel discomfort, caution, or suspicion when I encounter a stranger of “that group?” Do I interact with people from an “other group” in a natural and unguarded way? To what extent do I have neighbors, friends, and colleagues from an “other group” with whom I relate on a continuing basis as equals? Do I see value in racial and ethnic diversity? Have I evolved, am I evolving in my feelings toward these “other groups,” and if so, in what ways?
  3. Prejudices often lie deep beneath the surface and can take a very long time to access–months, often years. To get in touch with unconscious attitudes and responses requires empty space in one’s daily life, which is to say some time in each day when you are alone and mentally disengaged: not reading, not surfing the web, not watching TV, not listening to the radio, not listening to music. You can be walking or running or swimming, riding an exercise bike or walking on a treadmill. You can be sitting in a quiet place or soaking in the bathtub. But it does require some silent, solitary time built into your life. It is essential to figure out a way to make space in your daily routine to let your list of questions float about within and around you.
  4. As things begin to surface, talk with a trusted friend or spiritual advisor about your findings and personal discoveries. Tell them some of the memories, stories, and incidents from your life that seem most important in shaping your attitudes towards those of different races and ethnicities. Ask them to share their impressions and thoughts about what you have told them. Sometimes we cannot see our own behavior and attitudes clearly, and need to rely on others to be “mirrors” for us.
  5. If you do not already have close friends from other races and ethnicities, take the time to get to know at least one person of an “other group” in a meaningful way. Relate to this person, or these people, with gratitude, realizing that they are taking time to be with you and may have prejudices toward your group–and, for them, it may feel risky to tell you how they have been hurt by your group. It is impossible to fully recognize inherent or subconscious biases alone without honest exchange of thoughts and feelings with people from “the other.”

As we come to recognize our biases, we are left with the problem of what to do about them. To help us take that next step, the topic for the March 15 posting will be “How to address our racial and ethnic prejudices.”

There are some things within us that are so far beneath the surface of our movement and our functioning that we are unmindful not only of their presence but also of the quality of their influence in our decisions, our judgment, and our behavior. In the quietness we will their exposure before God, that they may be lifted to the center of our focus, that we may know what they are and seek to deal with them in keeping with our health and our inmost wisdom.  

                                            – Howard Thurman, For the Inward Journey, pp. 5,6