In our culture, prejudice has become a dirty word, suggesting that we are not ‘politically correct’, and that we are prejudiced for superficial reasons. Yet we do all have prejudices – we couldn’t manage without them.
A prejudice is simply a pre-formed assumption we make about the person or situation ahead of us, which sets the tone for how we approach it. It is based partly on our cultural upbringing, and partly on our own previous experience
Without our prejudices, we would find life almost impossible, having to assess the situation at hand afresh every time. It would be as if all our memory and experience were erased after each action we took, and we had to build the story from scratch each time.
Our prejudices give us a starting point for any given situation, based on what we already know. For example, we assume our friends want to spend time with us, care about what happens to us, and wish us well. So we look forward to seeing them or speaking with them, and expect sympathy if we have a problem and tell them about it. What these prejudices give us is a form of lens through which we view what happens: we notice all the evidence that these assumptions are true, and build our prejudices further.
So the question isn’t whether we have any prejudices; it is whether our prejudices are useful. For sure, being prejudiced towards expecting our friends to behave in certain ways is useful to us. Making the assumption that a meeting is bound to be difficult or boring may be less so!
Our prejudices are not set in stone, so we can choose to keep or discard the prejudices we have, and to create new ones that could serve us well, once we are aware of how they affect the way we see situations and people.
For me, a useful way to consider our prejudices is to distinguish between the ones we have for something and the ones we have against something. Many of those we have against something are not based on our experience primarily – they tend to be about things or people we don’t really know much about. On the other hand prejudices towards certain things tends to be based on our experience of it being useful to us.
An example would be how as children most of us are told not to speak to strangers. This may be a useful prejudice for a child – although possibly not to be applied to everyone they don’t know! – but as a grown-up the residue of this prejudice against strangers can be a real handicap. It would mean that we are wary of anyone we don’t know and approach interaction with them with some trepidation – that is a severe limitation on us as social animals. And of course, the alternative is to make the assumption that most strangers are good people who could be friends and will probably be helpful and pleasant – a much nicer way to be in the world!
A prejudice colours how we approach our everyday lives, so let’s make these colours bright and enjoy how that makes the world a brighter place. I find my prejudices are generally pretty useful to me – how about you?