Prejudice is Natural

Priyanka Mashelkar

But not good

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The recent spate of anti-Asian racist acts, like the horrific Atlanta shootings, has brought the question of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination back into the public imagination.

However, I’m afraid that the blanket vilification of ‘prejudice’ will not serve the purpose. Why? Isn’t prejudice bad and to be vilified, in order to ensure a more equitable world order?

The case against demonizing prejudice

It is bad, but it is still a natural defense mechanism for our brains in the face of the unknown. Our brains are constantly bombarded with information and stimulus. The only way for it to process everything while ensuring its human’s survival is to perform some ‘quick-and-dirty’ filtering — if there is a dog and a lion around, we need to move away from the lion. That particular lion may not be dangerous, and that dog may be rabid. But given the information available, the brain does its best. And what information does it have? It is what we read, what we consume, what we hear, and what we experience.

Therefore, there is no such thing as no prejudice. There isn’t a single person on Earth who is completely unbiased.

Think you don’t have any biases? Try the Implicit Association Test (IAT) on the Harvard website. If you don’t want to, let me give you a simple example. Suppose you are supposed to meet with two people, one a high-flying executive, and the other, their personal secretary. When you walk into the room, there stand a man and a woman. What does your brain assume? Be honest.

So, when we paint all prejudice with the same brush, when we hold everyone against an ideal of ‘zero bias’ which is humanly unattainable, we undermine our own cause by making everyone feel inadequate and wrong.

What must we do instead?

  • We must acknowledge that having a bias is part and parcel of being human — and that every person who holds such an unconscious bias is not a monster.
  • We also need to forgive ourselves for such implicit biases. The human brain is a complex organ that forms associations based on many inputs, and doesn’t always live up to ‘ideals’. No one is ‘colour-blind’ or ‘gender-blind’ — and those are harmful ideals to live up to, in any case.
  • Instead, a healthier way to approach this would be to acknowledge bias and ensure that it doesn’t affect our behaviour in ways that would be unfair to the recipient. This requires conscious thought before taking any action — identifying the prejudice, taking counter-measures to ensure that the bias isn’t the ‘deciding factor’, and even preventing over-compensating, which would lead to a reverse bias.

What must the system do?

Biases exist not just at the individual level, but also systemically. However, again, instead of painting every person participating in the system as monstrous (which only manages to paint even well-meaning individuals who happen to have implicit biases as racist/sexist/etc., leading to a strong recoil reaction of the unfortunate category, akin to ‘Not all Men’ ), it would be more constructive to attempt and break down such stereotypes — our brains are malleable.

Some methods which have proven effective include:

  • Popularising people who defy stereotypes — the so-called counter-stereotypes
  • Diversity training to intentionally recognise and counteract biases
  • Mixing of social groups in order to value individual characteristics over assumed ‘group’ features

Concluding thoughts

Bias has very real victims — when it is acted upon. Whether it is race, caste, language, sex, gender, or even weight, the consequences are economically, mentally and physically painful — and quite often fatal. Whether it is not being given the job despite being more qualified, receiving lower quality of medical care, or being treated as criminals-by-default, these are consequences none of us who aspire to an equal world should be okay with.

That is why, in such a charged environment, it is more crucial than ever to normalize the existence of bias while working tirelessly to counter it — in society as well as in our own brains.

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