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Just as we in 21st Century America look back at cultural practices of years gone by with a combination of repulsion and amazement, future generations probably will look back at the prejudice that runs rampant in the world today with similar reactions.
Just as it is almost impossible for us to understand the Roman thinking that feeding people to lions is a spectator sport, in a few years people will try to understand why millions of otherwise sane individuals would consider some people “less than” others because of the color of their skin, their ethnicity, or their sexual preference.
Rather than wait for future generations to try to figure out what made the widespread prejudice possible in the early days of the 21st century, let me offer one possible explanation while we are living in the middle of it.
All attitudes are the result of beliefs
Because our beliefs are the primary determinant of what we do and feel, and even what we perceive, all prejudice can be traced to beliefs.
Some people who are convinced that African-Americans, or Muslims, or gays are not as good as them are expressing their beliefs about those people. A belief is a statement about reality that we experience as the truth. It is a fact about reality for the person who holds the belief. So when we hold a belief about something, we are convinced that we know the truth about that something.
But, in fact, no belief describes the truth about reality. Without exception, all beliefs are nothing more than arbitrary interpretations of actual events in reality. Physical objects and events certainly occur in the world, but the meaning we give the events exists only in our minds, not in the world.
How prejudicial beliefs are formed
A few years ago Leeza Gibbons devoted the entire hour of her daytime talk show to an investigation of the causes and cures for prejudice. I had been on the show before talking about how beliefs cause most of our thoughts, feelings, and behavior, so she asked me to come back to discuss the relationship between beliefs and racial prejudice.
Before the show, we went into the audience looking for a volunteer who would acknowledge having prejudice and who also would like to get rid of it if possible. We found Chad, a young man in his mid-20s, who said that he was “prejudiced against any ethnic group, the way they act and the things that they do.” After getting rid of the primary belief that caused that feeling before the show started, he announced during the show to a nationwide audience that he no longer felt the same way.
Let me tell you about the conversation I had with Chad before the Leeza show went on the air.
When we started the conversation he had told me that he felt that members of ethnic minorities, especially African-Americans, couldn’t be trusted. So I asked him: “What do you believe about these people that would have you not trust them?”
He answered: “Blacks are dangerous.” (He used the word “Blacks”; I used the word “African-American.” Moreover, there probably were additional beliefs, but this was one the most relevant.)
I replied: “It’s clear that anyone with your belief would feel the way you do. But you didn’t have that belief when you were a year or so old. What happened that led you to that conclusion?”
“When I was 10 my dad took us to the gun cabinet and said we had his permission to kill a Black if he stepped on our property. Areas, where Blacks lived, were very dangerous—a lot of crime and killing. The news was full of it. Most of our friends had the same negative attitudes about Blacks. I heard this constantly at home and at school. I also remember driving my car once and saw a Black man get into an accident that was clearly his fault.”
How prejudicial beliefs can be eliminated
I said to Chad: “Your belief about African-Americans—that they are dangerous—is one explanation for what you saw and heard as a child. What else could the same events mean?”
Here’s what he answered:
“What my father and others said might have been true of some Blacks, but not all of them.”
“Some Blacks are … (almost anything) just like some whites are … (almost anything).”
“The behavior I heard came from Blacks is true of some people from every race, not just Blacks.”
“People I knew said that stuff because they believed it, but everything you hear isn’t always right.”
It was immediately clear to Chad that his beliefs about African-Americans were only one arbitrary interpretation of what he had heard about African-Americans as a child, and not the truth.
I then asked him: “Didn’t it seem as if you could see African-Americans are dangerous when your father and friends talked about the crime and the killings in African-American neighborhoods?”
“I did see it,” he replied. “Anyone would have seen it.”
“Okay, if you could see it, tell me what does ‘African-Americans are dangerous’ look like,” I asked.
“Well, it looks like people getting robbed or killed in Black neighborhoods.”
“Yes,” I said, “you could see that, or hear people tell you about that. But that fact could have a lot of different meanings. You just gave me four of them. I want to know what ‘African-Americans are dangerous’ looks like.”
After a moment’s reflection, he replied, “Now I understand what you mean. I can’t see ‘Blacks are dangerous’. I just saw certain people saying things to me. I guess I made up those beliefs about Blacks. That’s not reality.”
It was after this short interaction with me that Chad announced on national TV that his prejudice was gone.
The prejudice that exists today against Muslims, African-Americans, gays, or any other group is based on beliefs that are nothing more than arbitrary meanings we gave to a series of events (9/11, what we read in the newspaper, what we were told by parents, what lots of other people already believe, etc.). The beliefs are not facts. They are not the truth.
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