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Of Prejudice

March 11, 2013

As a very small child, I saw that my father was a coffee drinker and my mother was a tea drinker. Bringing to bear my young powers of deduction, I concluded that men drink coffee and women drink tea. I came to this conclusion despite the fact that all four of my grandparents were coffee drinkers – I saw my grandparents much less often than my parents.

As I grew up, I became cognitively aware that coffee-drinking and tea-drinking are not sex-specific behaviors, and I recognized that I held a prejudice about the sexes and hot beverages. I even came to understand how I had formed the prejudice. But the prejudice stayed with me. To this day, I notice when a man drinks tea – the childhood idea stubbornly hangs on despite a lifetime of empirical evidence, and despite what I would like to think is a fairly substantial facility with logical reasoning.

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When I was maybe four years old, my mother enrolled me in a swimming class at the local YWCA. (It had to be the YWCA, because the YMCA had no classes for children.) I remember us being lined up at the side of the pool, in the water, hanging on to the gutter to listen to our instructor. I found myself lined up next to the little black girl in the class, and I moved away from her, down the line a place or two.

I don’t know why I did that. I knew no African-Americans at that age, and I guess she looked strange to me. Why her looking strange led me to feel the need to move away from her is beyond me. I don’t remember feeling afraid of her, and I am absolutely certain that no one had taught me, in words or by example, to avoid or fear black people. Still, her blackness was different to me in some way that was important enough for me to notice it and react to it, without regard to any other fact about her.

More than a half-century later, I remain deeply ashamed by what I did. I am horrified to think that I may have given an innocent child one of her first experiences of racial prejudice. I have not until this day ever told this story to anyone. I can only try to find redemption in learning from my experience.

It is often said that we are born without prejudice, that prejudice has to be taught. My experience tells me otherwise. I think it is important in this context to distinguish racial prejudice and racism. My experience tells me that prejudice is inherent in the human condition, but racism is learned.

To me, the difference is that prejudice is a reaction, an impulse – it is not reasoned, and in fact it defies reason. Racism, as suggested by the suffix “ism,” is an ideology, a system of beliefs, holding at its core that the races are morally distinguishable – that one race is better than another.

My experience tells me that all people hold prejudices, including racial prejudices, but not all people are racist.

We are programmed by evolutionary biology to make snap judgments based on limited information – predator or prey, friend or foe, fight or flight. We are a social species, but we are also a tribal species. I suppose our hunter-gatherer ancestors, coming across each other on the savanna, had to determine instantaneously whether we had come across a member of our own tribe or of another – if the former, share the fruits and nuts, but if the latter, kill or be killed.

We don’t hunt and gather so much anymore, but our tribalism persists in our loyalty to our families, our countries, our religions, our schools, our sports teams. We go to great lengths to organize ourselves into usses and thems.

People often complain that my evolutionary theory of human prejudice is pessimistic – if I’m saying we must be who we are, it seems like I’m saying we cannot change. But evolution has saved us with the ability to reason. Many species have cognition, but humans alone have what I call meta-cognition – the ability to think about our thinking. We can recognize our prejudices and reason away from them. I will probably never be free of my reactive impulse to a man drinking tea, and I will probably never be free of noticing a person’s race. But I can reason my way through my prejudices – I can recognize a prejudice, I can deduce that it is not factual, and I can deliberate on my behavioral options. Holding a prejudice does not require me to act on it; holding a prejudice does not even require me to believe it.

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When I was in school, I was a T-shirt-and-jeans kind of guy. I didn’t realize it then, but people reacted to me accordingly. When I graduated from law school and began to work for a living, I became a young white man in a suit, and I came to realize that I was to some people a symbol. As a young white man in a suit, I was a symbol of privilege. For better and for worse, people reacted differently toward me because of how I looked – which, if I may, is a form of prejudice.

Now that I’m a middle-aged white man in a suit, I’m not so much a symbol of privilege as of authority. Like, people ask me for directions. But here’s something I’ve noticed. It used to be that an African-American looking for directions would pass by the African-American next to me to ask for directions from me, the white guy in a suit. But in recent years, I’ve noticed that the African-American looking for directions seeks out the African-American next to me to ask for directions.

I don’t take this as a snub to the white man in a suit. I take it as reasoning out of a prejudice, evidently once held by many African-Americans as well as others, that white people more reliably than African-Americans will know the correct route to their destinations. I take it as another illustration of the human capacity to reason our way away from prejudice.

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