Prejudice and Power

A recent panel discussion at London School of Economics highlights two distinctive ways to think about the nature of prejudice.

On the one hand, we might think about prejudice as a function of individual psychology. We might say that humans are wired by evolution to spot patterns and predict the behaviours of others. Yes, people make erroneous judgments all the time, such as ascribing incorrect beliefs and motives to individuals from observed external characteristics, but these glitches might be corrected by education and training.

The other way to describe prejudice is to locate it in a social environment. In this case, it is not merely the case that some individuals make incorrect prejudgments, but rather that the structures of society more or less train us to systematically assume certain things about one another. For example, if the media repeatedly pummels us with images of a particular group performing violent acts, we are far more likely to prejudge (unconsciously or otherwise) an identifiable individual from this group when we meet them on the street. Scale this up and you have oppression: societal discrimination operationalized to assign certain groups subordinate roles in society.

The idea here is that we need to see the causation of discrimination as cyclical: we have biological processes that equip us to make heuristic snap judgments about one another, yes, but we live in a social world that informs the objects and content of our prejudice. In other words: our prejudice frames the world and the world frames our prejudice. To understand how prejudice manifests itself, we need to realize that these two “distinctive” modes function reciprocally, not in isolation from one another.

This view of prejudice as a self-reinforcing social phenomenon leads us to a critical observation: we cannot fully talk about the prejudice of individuals without talking about who has power in society. Power and prejudice are inextricably linked to one another. Thinking about prejudice as an exclusively “personal” or “individualistic” problem fails to account for the ways that institutions and governments are critical actors in the social environments that nurture, inform, and bias the opinions of individuals. At this level, then, we need to think about prejudice as systemic and structural as it is personal and individualistic.

If this is true, it does little good to place the “blame” for prejudice at the doorstep of an individual who has a preconceived opinion about another group of people, at least to the extent that their preconceived ideas came from reified “cues” in society. The end game of this perspective is not to fully write off the responsibility of the individual for acting in prejudicial or discriminatory ways, but rather to situate the individual in a context that attempts to account for the array of social, political, and corporate interests pushing and nudging them at all times.

If we say that prejudice is only a “natural” human phenomenon, we are effectively (and selectively?) ignoring all the other structures we have enshrined to organize society.

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