Why Prejudice Continues, Despite Good Intentions

None of us are perfect as human beings. No matter how much we try, we unintentionally will all end up upsetting someone, knowing someone, excluding someone, hurting someone. And, unfortunately, we will all be on the receiving end of those negative behaviors, inevitably. When these things happen systematically, as so many in the Black Lives Matter movement have tried to point out, the offended parties will naturally speak out. We can even see this on personal level in groups we belong to, when one person is somehow not treated well. And the offenders who truly care listen, and genuinely wish to do well. But why do some problems still get perpetuated?

I believe there is one key psychological/sociological process behind this: people are operating from a place of abstraction rather than personal experience. And when the reality hits, it is NIMBY–Not In My Back Yard.

It is easy for someone for someone to say they oppose the mistreatment of others, that they are pained (and genuinely so) to hear of someone being treated badly. Someone who is actively involved, for example, in a human rights group that protests against the abuses of an indigenous tribe might find it uncomfortable and not want to listen when a friend tells them they were abused by clergy in the Catholic Church. It is easy for people to talk about what they hear on the news about people’s lives being affected by the pandemic, but when someone in a group talks about how their own career status is at peril, they change the subject or do not respond. Recently, I was talking with an open-minded American friend who has friends of different backgrounds, and is widely traveled. However, when I told her that a European friend had suggested I move to her country, but my hesitation was the growing racism I could face there (implying I could be mistaken for a South Asian laborer), she was not able to respond.

I believe a truly psychologically healthy, Zen-like solution to this is to allow ourselves to feel discomfort that comes up. By this, I am not implying that we should torture ourselves or voluntarily be unhappy–this is a very unconstructive way of dealing with problems, and I truly believe that joy, laughter, and happiness are what will move us ahead. However, we cannot deny the difficulties that happen to those around us. Only in accepting the fact that we are uncomfortable, that things are not abstractions but realities that happen to our loved ones and those we know, can we see the reality of a problem and take constructive action to move forward. We have to accept that in hearing about these unpleasant things, sometimes we might feel powerless and not know what to say. Perhaps guilt is what is underlying people’s unwillingness to respond.

But simply taking the time to accept people’s individual experiences can go a long way. A more constructive response would be to offer empathy, a willingness to listen, and compassion. And we should feel gratitude for the good things we do have rather than embarrassment or shame. Sometimes there may be a limit to how much we can hear or handle, especially during this pandemic, and we may have to set limits on what we hear from others on a personal level or in the news. We have to offer ourselves compassion as well.

These are not easy things to do. I am by no means perfect in practicing this, nor is anyone. But understanding people’s experiences firsthand, on an individual level, just might be a first step to making larger changes. A professor of international education in developing countries at Columbia University’s Teachers College told us something so simple and yet profound when thinking about how we look at societal ills: “They’re people, not problems.”

The Culture of Enabling and the Bystander Effect

As we have recently seen in our political charade how one corrupt politician has covered for another crony, we must ask ourselves why this happens. This raises the issue of enabling, and of not speaking up when we see injustice or unethical behavior.

Politically, there is a lot at stake for those who choose to whistleblow. Elected officials may lose constituent support and not be reelected. Appointed individuals may be asked to resign or simply dismissed. Individuals in either category may be aware of the wrongdoings, (innocent) bystanders, but may simply not speak up for whatever reason, assuming that others will do so or that justice will be served, that somehow correct activity will be spotted and punished. In our political situation, we can blame the Republicans for having put Trump up as a candidate in the first place. That was origin of the chain of disastrous events that have been going on in Washington for the past few years.

Also plaguing American (and even global) society in recent times is the whole #MeToo movement, which has taken place on both high level (think Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose) as well as ordinary day-to-day level interactions between men and women. One of the perpetrators cited in the Charlie Rose case was his Executive Producer, Yvette Vega, who knew of Rose’s lewd behavior, but told Rose’s targets that that was the way he was.

So that raises another interesting point–women are sometimes complicit in men’s bad behavior. Women perpetuate negative cycles, as can be seen in many patriarchal cultures where mothers may blame their daughters for being raped or harassed or for the way men treat them badly. This was a topic that a professor had raised in graduate school in an international education class, and it is sadly true through not only the developing world, but also in the industrialized West.

Ordinary good people are sometimes complicit in enabling bad behavior. I recently experienced a situation in which I was completely blindsided by the leader of a group despite having done nothing wrong. And yet others in the group did not speak up for me. The bystanders allowed the group leader to have too much power.

What do we do, then, if we are in such a position where we see bad behavior, and it could potentially have negative consequences for us if we report it? Or if we like the person who has been behaving badly toward others, for they have not behaved badly toward us and have been our supporters, mentors, advocates?

These are not easy questions to answer, but I think we have to speak up as much as possible. Is it not more noble to do the right thing even if we have to face the consequences? Or, if we are not able to take action, because of direct to ourselves or even our livelihood, we need to be very aware of that and admit our hypocrisy in the situation in which we are engaged. This has to be a case-by-case basis, and sometimes there are overt situations which require speaking up and even taking legal action if necessary, but there other situations which may require more subtle action.

At the bottom of this discussion is the issue of character. We need to be educating students about the importance of good character, and our educational institutions, even higher education ones, need to place an emphasis on this. My alma mater, Stanford University, seems to be busy admitting the future twentysomething billionaire entrepreneurs who often show moral depravity and even sociopathic tendencies–think Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Granted, 99% of the students are not this extreme and we have to take into account developmental stages of young people.

But our society really needs to think more about valuing ethics over fame, power, and money. Why don’t we make America ethical again?!