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Diversity and Prejudice: Exploring an Uncomfortable Truth

Nutifafa Doe Yakor

All of us, as individuals and as social groups, are to some extent guilty of prejudice. From classical imperialism and slavery to Nazism and segregation and even today's terrorism, anti-ter­rorism, and anti-homosexual tendencies, we, as humanity, have time and again failed woefully in fostering fraternity, mutual respect and har­mony. So the current obsession with diversity is in some ways a reflection of a checkered history that silently hunts us; either positively prodding us toward these desired human goals of respect and tolerance, or actively creating a fear of be­ing perceived through the discriminatory lens of the past.


I use such descriptions as "us," "we," "our," etc., to illustrate humanity's shared stake in ensuring good relations among diverse com­munities. Our search for lasting solutions to interpersonal and intergroup relations in light of stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination forces us to focus on the most basic questions of causation. We want to understand how people build stereotypes as well as why they become prejudiced and subsequently discriminate against others. These questions are critical, because we can certainly not solve that whose origins we do not fully understand.


Our individualities are shaped by the constant interplay of biological, psy­chological and social factors that also shapes prejudice and issues with diversity. Interestingly, our attack on discrimination has mostly centered on the social component and rightly so. By social, I mean interactions between people in terms of actual behavior and attitudes. Obviously, this component is the only one that can be dealt with by legislative and po­litical processes because it is tangible. Blatant and conspicuous acts of discrimination are easily done away with by legislation and education to engender cultural change - for example: laws to end segregation and dis­crimination against women in the workplace. As for our biology, there seems to be very little we can do. I use "biology" to refer to our genetic make-up and other natural factors that we generally have little control over. For example, we cannot, or generally, we do not chose to be born male or female; white, black or Hispanic; or to be heterosexual or homo­sexual. We are left with the psychological component, which encompass­es our thought processes, emotions and feelings. In fact, this component could prove to be the most unassailable of the three factors because of its subtle and relatively intangible nature. Indeed, this is the reason why today, while discrimination (social) is just about gone, prejudice (psychol­ogy) lingers.


Our attempt on the social front has yielded fruitful results. Laws and education have created a bit of a new social orientation. A cursory ob­servation is enough to show that societal expectations and practices today in the interactions between people of different races, beliefs, cultures etc. have radically transformed. We have a very courteous cul­ture, which may even approach excitement about the unique individu­ality of the other. I can advance about three different motivations for this: There is the more desired genuine respect and appreciation for the other individual's unique identity and cultural make-up. There may also be the relatively less desirable simple conformity to the current cultur­al norms and societal expectations; the third factor would be the fear of being labeled negatively as close-minded, intolerant, racist and so on.


Of course, these factors are relative. One person may truly appreciate the abilities of a woman but merely conform to societal expectations in deal­ing with Muslims while another may truly appreciate the Muslim culture but merely conform when it comes to women. Much of the research around this fails to bring authentic results because people are not always willing to share their true private feel­ings and thoughts, especially if there is an as­sumed normative or they are not even aware of their true feelings. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote. "Every man has reminiscences which he would not tell to everyone but only his friends. He has other matters in his mind which he would not reveal even to his friends, but only to himself, and that in secret. But there are other things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself, and every decent man has a number of such things stored away in his mind." So while the measure­ments of the extent of the motivations remain limited. it seems accurate to speculate that soci­ety would prefer, or at least hope, that the first factor, genuine respect and appreciation for the other, accounts for the greater rather than the lesser of individual and inter-group interactions.


But what is wrong with what we have now? At least we are all courteous and nice and we are not at each other's throats! And really, there seems to be relative societal cohesion and stability, which is better than the polar­ized conditions of old. The problem is that the continuous presence of prejudice, conscious or unconscious. even in the absence of blatant dis­crimination, engenders subtle or latent discrimi­nation. Mere conformity also becomes psycho­logically taxing as people focus so strongly on not offending the other, which speaks lit­tle to the true spirit of diverse interactions.


Today, even though most people have attempted to socialize themselves mentally and socially in order to participate effectively in diverse rela­tions, there seems to be a conscious or unconscious prejudicial cognitive constraint. Mere conformity for example may lead to most indi­viduals focusing so strongly on not appearing discriminatory or not making inappropriate re­marks, that interactions become awkward. The result in such cases may be superficial interactions which at best stay on the surface and at worst, may be perceived as pretentious. It becomes psychologically taxing because a person from an in-group does not want to be perceived as holding prejudices while the person from the out-group does not know the true intentions and hence may perceive any subtle reference as evidence of prejudice. The individual from the in-group may also be unaware of what is appropriate and inappropriate in interactions with the out-group, referred to in social psy­chology as the lack of scripts. This further heightens the anxiety (Avery 2009). This is evidence that while we have made significant strides, we are definitely not there yet. Interactions between diverse groups should be beautiful and natural.


The direction in which we take the diversity discussion in the years to come is significant. The first phase of humanity's war on discrimination was dealt with at the group level by laws, school regulations, etc. The next step in the war will likely be at the personal level and must neces­sarily begin with some brutally honest self-evaluations. The test of each individual when it comes to prejudice and assumed stereotypes is not so much in the interactions with the other as it is in the individual's silent perceptions. In fact, it is actually a test of one ·s silent private thoughts­ those shared with no one and sometimes not even with oneself. How does one perceive the other group while he/she is alone with his/her thoughts? How does one talk about the other group when in his/her own homo­geneous group? The things we cannot and may never say out loud and sometimes even feel guilty for thinking may actually be those that really define how truly diverse we are. I wish to submit here, that any truly hon­est evaluation will reveal the fact that we all do hold some stereotypes and prejudices.


We define ourselves in so many ways. I, for example, am a male, an Af­rican, a Ghanaian, a heterosexual, a Cobber and much more. Each group definition provides an avenue for the creation of an out-group and a sub­sequent build up of prejudice against and stereotyping of that out-group. It is significant to note also that depending on location, the time in his­tory, etc., each group we are part of may be the majority or the minority. I make this point because sometimes, individuals who are victims of preju­dice in one context where they are the minority soon go on the defensive about the legitimacy of their own prejudices against another minority group when the group definition changes and they become part of the majority. It is quite hard to find anybody who has a high moral ground in this discussion. Of course, very conscious individuals have reoriented themselves and are already in the group that genuinely appreciates the out-group. But to the extent that we have a generaJ, almost natural, capac­ity for building prejudice, we seem equal and I daresay we are innocent. The victim of prejudice, say "prejudice A," may be as prejudiced in some other way as the holder of "prejudice A." But then again, to the extent that each individual fails to rise above this general capacity to build prejudice, by reorienting himself/herself to fit our inclusive modem times, he/she is as guilty as charged.


If you thought issues like these were dead, you thought wrong. Just take a walk with a feminist, a Muslim, a homosexual, an African American, a Hispanic, etc. and if you are curious and genuine enough, you will find out. But these minority groups are also prejudiced against the majority groups. For example, if a member of the minority simply assumes that a member of the majority holds prejudice, which seems to be a fairly com­mon assumption, then that is prejudice, too.


It is indeed very positive that we have become obsessed with diversity. The forced focus ensures that we can learn about one another which is the only way out. In some ways though, our past has created the fear to offend which has impeded our ability to truly learn, understand and ap­preciate each other. But let not the fear of the past cripple the making of the future. It is fair to say that true knowledge about diversity can and will need to be filled with honest discussion and interaction, objective analy­sis and cultural dissection, unbiased academic but respectful criticism where necessary and many others tactics with which we, of the liberal arts education, pride ourselves. If we can all agree that we are all not re­ally any better, we take a giant step towards ensuring the much-needed honest discussion that would precipitate general societal change. Change that originates from the individual would be a lasting change. True knowledge with a con­scious effort to be unbiased against the out­-group but which still allows for criticism is crucial to building diverse relationships that understand, respect, appreciate, and celebrate the individual and collective values of the other individual and the out-group.


But undertaking honest discussion puts us in a bit of a dilemma. How do we have truly honest discussion without becoming offensive? Is there a definite line that we cannot cross? There is no objective answer to this but all groups can foster the process of understand­ing by being open to questions and welcoming respectful discussion and criticism. Interaction is a two-way process and for it to improve, it will take efforts from both sides. Our world is beautiful, colored by our diversity to form a unique collage of cultures, not unlike a rain­bow, and it is our collective duty to maintain peace and harmony within this natural collage. 

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