The Scourge of Prejudice

Prejudice and conflict management

Prejudice, from the Latin praejudicium or ‘pre-judgment’ (generally in a negative sense) is surely one of humankind’s greatest flaws.

I cannot count the number of times I have negatively pre-judged a person or group – only to be proven wrong time and again. Does this make me a bad person? No. It makes me normal. And from my perspective, that is the saddest part of it.

I understand why prejudice exists; I think it forms an essential part of our self-preservation mechanism. When we see a person we don’t know or can’t relate to, our amygdala jumps into action (the part of our brain responsible for vigilance generally and the fear response specifically) 1. This might help keep us safe, but it also has the potential to start an unnecessary fight, and more broadly, to create a lot of unnecessary conflict.

On a broad scale, I believe that holding onto our pre-conceived (often negative) notions about others will limit human progress.

My parents often told me that from my earliest days I was someone who cared about other people; wanted people to be happy; and wanted harmony. As the middle child in my family, I had plenty of chances to practice my skills in achieving a harmonious end state. And look at my profession: conflict management, collaborative negotiation, teamwork, managing difficult conversations.  One could be forgiven for saying that I didn’t choose my profession; it chose me.

It is fair to say that the notion of justice matters to me.

My parents spent a good portion of their formative years under Nazi occupation in The Netherlands: my father was 9 when the war started; 15 when it ended. Mom was younger: ages 5 to 11. Both of them had plenty of potent experiences seared into their memories forever.

I’ve always been a curious person: curious about why people are the way they are and how/why we live differently in different places. Simultaneously, I have been struck by the powerful similarities among us as humans, and therefore deeply saddened by the amount of energy we have spent throughout human history fighting over our differences.

As soon as I could afford it, I started backpacking to explore our world. I began in Europe. One of my early stops was the Nazi concentration camp in Dachau, near Munich. Although we are not Jewish, one of my Dutch uncles spent time in Dachau Concentration Camp during WWII. To this day, I’m still not sure how or why he was there. He never spoke about it, and we never dared ask.

Miraculously, he survived the concentration camp. As the war neared its end and the Nazis ramped up their killings, he was on a train full of prisoners en route to Auschwitz for extermination when it rolled into Allied-controlled territory. The train was stopped and its passengers set free. I am told that my uncle walked home to The Netherlands over an undefined period of time. Amazing.

I will never forget the day I visited Dachau. The images and emotions are seared into my consciousness: the gas chamber; the incinerators; the barracks where people were jammed together like sardines, literally almost sleeping on top of each other; the wall where countless people were summarily executed by a firing squad; and the cruel lie written in wrought iron letters atop one of the gates: “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Sets You Free). Then there were the photos in the commemorative exhibition: masses of emaciated bodies piled high; brutal images of ill treatment; and much more. I had seen images like this before, but the setting gave them a potency I wasn’t ready for.

Why am I telling you this? I’m not really sure, to be frank. These memories came back to me as I wrote this article. As I reflect on it, I think these memories came to mind because the Nazi death camps of WWII are a horrific example of what prejudice can lead to. Sadly, there are far too many examples of this in our history.

Now allow me to take you back to Minneapolis on May 25th, where the impact of prejudice was mercilessly demonstrated – almost nonchalantly and therefore ever-more-so brutally – by a Caucasian police officer as he pressed his knee into African-American George Floyd’s neck for 7 minutes and 46 seconds, while holding one hand in his pocket, looking around almost disinterestedly as George Floyd repeatedly pleaded for his life 2.

Again and again, George Floyd told the police officer that he could not breathe and pleaded for the officer to relent as he lay face-down on the street with the officer’s knee pressed into his neck. At one point as things got worse and he grew increasingly desperate, Floyd called out for his deceased mother; a haunting moment.

All this took place in broad daylight, while multiple onlookers took video recordings of the events and vehemently urged the officer (and his 3 fellow officers on the scene) to relent.

But none of this made a difference.

George Floyd died needlessly, face down on the street.

This is but ONE example in an almost endless list of injustices faced by African-Americans. In the days following George Floyd’s death, various commenters summarized the sad truth all too well: this kind of wrongdoing toward African-Americans is nothing new; the only difference is that now it is being recorded on video and shared.

As I said in my Founder’s Message of the Newsletter this article is attached to, let me hasten to add that Canada has plenty of its own racism toward African-Canadians and many other groups – be they visible minorities or other sub-groups differentiated by race, gender, sexual orientation, cultural heritage, or religion to name but a few.

As a middle-class white male born and raised in Canada, I cannot in good faith say that I can come anywhere close to truly understanding what it is like to face the prejudice, discrimination, and injustice faced by millions and millions of people around the world. Although I have been treated unjustly and I have felt like an outsider many times in my life, I believe that my experiences pale in comparison to millions of others. I grew up with privileges I didn’t even know I had. Research has repeatedly shown the prevalence of conscious and unconscious biases in favour of white men – even more so if one is a tall white man like me.

So, what can I do to make a positive difference?

First and foremost I can look inward. I can revisit my own biases and prejudices and challenge them anew. I believe all progress starts with us looking in the mirror to see what we can do better and how we can be better.

Second, I can discuss this with people in my life, to learn, to shine a light on my blind spots. To ask for feedback. This can also help me try to imagine what it might be like for people who did not grow up with the privilege I have had; to foster empathy.  I’m happy to report that since George Floyd’s death I have indeed had a number of conversations like this with various people. So, that’s a small start. But it’s not enough.

Third, I can take action.

This article is one such small step: using my voice to contribute to the chorus of voices to say: “ENOUGH!”

But this article is a very small step indeed. I think one of the best things I can do going forward is to say something and do something about prejudice when I see it in action, to speak with my children about it, to speak with my friends about it, and to always be vigilant about my own prejudices and blind spots.

Let us use this moment as a tipping point.

Please don’t mistake me though: I am not naive enough to think that everything will suddenly change for the better. I’m also not naïve enough to think that we can somehow root out prejudice – ever.

I believe prejudice is a permanent part of the human condition.

I believe it is something that each one of us must challenge within ourselves and with others whenever we encounter it; especially when we see it causing harm.

When I think of ALL the ways that prejudice has played out to tragic effect in human history, my heart sinks under the weight: countless genocides carried out for countless reasons, usually rooted in some form of prejudice. In addition to the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe during WWII, think of the Japanese incursions into China during that same period, the horror and atrocities of slavery, the impact of the European conquest of the Americas, the Killing Fields of Cambodia in the 1970’s, the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and the cultural genocide perpetrated upon the Indigenous peoples here in Canada, to name but a few.

It is easy to feel despair and hopelessness.

But I feel there is legitimate cause for hope.

There are many tangible signs of progress in our relations with each other as a human race.3 The mass protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death are one such example. I know there have been many protests in the past, but the scale and duration of these protests, the attention, the continued dialogue and the feeling in the air – all of it feels different to me.

Let’s all do our part to make it count.

By Peter Hiddema
Founder, Common Outlook Consulting Inc.

1 Susan T. Fiske, Princeton University

2 Note: This was originally reported as 8 minutes and 46 seconds but was subsequently corrected by prosecutors. See this LA Times article for details.

3 For a robust summary of some of this progress, see Steven Pinker’s excellent 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. For more recent encouragement, see some of Mr. Pinker’s 2019 writings published on his website at this same link.

Additional Reading
What Does Prejudice Reveal About What It Means to be Human? By Susan T. Fiske

Look Twice by Susan T. Fiske. Prejudice might be hardwired in our brains, but we can still learn to override our prejudices and embrace difference.

How to Deal with Prejudice by Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton.

Call it What It Is: Anti-Blackness by Kihana Miraya Ross.

The Racism Right Before Our Eyes by Jamelle Bouie.

13th  Filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s striking exploration of the history of racial inequality in the United States, from the days of slavery to the modern-day substantial overrepresentation of African-Americans in US prisons.

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