Jim Cole, Ed.D. With the changing demographics and social structure, educational
settings and work places present both the urgent need and opportunity for
reducing prejudices. Until now, most responses to reducing prejudices in these
settings have been legal and thus they have not confronted the dynamics of
the disorder. As one civil rights activist recently asked an audience, "Would
you rather live in a land where discrimination is illegal, or would you rather
live in a land where no one has a desire to discriminate?"
With this introduction I hope to delineate my own area of concern.
Prejudices will be dealt with here as a single set of dynamics that function
to dehumanize people who are identifiably different in some way from the people
whose perceptions are limited by the dysfunction we call prejudice. This approach
is taken for two reasons. First, it is easily defensible through the understanding
of the dynamics of prejudices; and second, the continued separation and classification
of prejudices according to the superficial categories of those who are prejudiced
is a disservice to those who are the targets of discrimination and a distortion
We have for too long focused upon the victims of prejudices as we have the
victims of rape. It has been "their problem." To continue to write
or talk about racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, xenophobia, and the ways
disabled people and others are treated is counterproductive. The process of
focusing upon the victims serves no purpose in the prevention or reduction
of prejudices. That approach looks at the problem in sub-categories based
upon those who are the targets of prejudice behavior and distracts from the
understanding that all prejudices are fundamentally the same. It also distracts
us from the understanding of the various dynamics which together are called
To have a better grasp of how prejudices function we need to look at how we
have learned prejudices. There are many stereotypes we learn as children.
We do not test these and many times we do not have the opportunity to test
them. We learn them as facts and behave as if they are the truth. Then, later
in life, when situations come up, we behave automatically out of these earlier
stereotyped learnings. This type of learning is not easily accessible for
discussion or awareness, but it simply stays with us for later effortless,
seemingly automatic application. Since the learning is not tested and not
challenged, it is not evaluated and not likely to be changed.
Later in life, we learn and acquire belief systems in a more active way. We
discuss, evaluate, and decide upon these new learnings. These are systems
of standards and codes of behavior which are easily re-evaluated. While they
are clearly knowable and readily accessible to evaluation, they are not automatic
in application. To behave out of these decided beliefs one must devote a minimal
amount of time and attention to the situation and then apply the decision.
One must also be fully aware of the cues and indicators that this is, indeed,
a situation where the rule or belief does apply. We sometimes have conflicts
between these two systems of "earlier learning" and "later
learning." Situations arise where the earlier learning seems to be an
automatic response. Time, attention, and awareness do not provide the opportunity
for the later decided belief system to come into use.
Therefore, the behavior seems to be automatic and prejudiced in spite of the
non-prejudiced belief system that is held. This type of behavioral conflict
between the "later learning" and the "earlier learning"
is what I refer to as an "unintentional prejudicial response." We
are at an interesting time right now. Many people seem to hold fewer "later
learning" prejudicial beliefs or convictions, but they do still have
"earlier learning" prejudicial reactions or perceptions. The result
is a situation where people report that they are not prejudiced, yet when
conditions come up, they often behave in prejudicial ways, based on their
"earlier learnings." Conditions that do not get peoples full
attention, or conditions where they are not fully aware of the other persons
group membership, will often result in a prejudicial response from ones
"earlier learning." This is one way of understanding why many people
who say they are not prejudiced will, when tested, behave in prejudiced ways.
It has been shown that this internal conflict within people produces some
personal discomfort when they behave in prejudicial ways. It has also been
shown that the greater the difference between the "later learning"
beliefs and the behaviors which come from the "earlier learning,"
the greater the personal discomfort. Some other dynamics are taking effect
is a common method of defending one's self from uncomfortable information,
behavioral responses tend to stay intact.
These factors when considered with the other factors of "earlier learning"
result in a strong behavioral pattern which is resistant to change.
When one has an encounter with an individual from a group for which one has
"earlier learned" prejudicial perceptions or reactions, the resulting
perceptions and behavior is "prejudiced like" and in conflict with
the individual's "later learned" beliefs and convictions. This behavior
brings some level of attention to the internal conflict that exists between
the "earlier learned" reactions and the "later learned"
beliefs and convictions, and often results in an avoidance behavior to reduce
At the same time the avoidance reduces the discomfort, it also assures that
the internal conflict is not examined or altered. Thus, because the behavior
is practiced and then removed from awareness, any possible personal examination
These two different prejudicial processes function differently from one another.
If we are involved in reducing prejudicial behavior, we need to have a grasp
of the differences between these two types of prejudices. Knowing the difference
allows intervention in the most effective ways. While nearly all of us have
grown up learning unintentional prejudices, fewer of us behave with intentional
prejudices. Whereas a person who behaves from unintentional prejudices might
also behave with intentional prejudices, most of us do not. On the other hand,
those who behave with intentional prejudices nearly always behave with unintentional
prejudices as well. Since these are different dynamics, knowing the difference
is important in effectively confronting the problem behaviors.
acceptance of information
Strength for prejudicial behavior
connection to personal identity
to Political Changes
a person is
a person feels threatened
Possible vestigial behavior
of approaching world and environment
behavior is in conflict with intentional beliefs, then guilt might result
Possible defensive reaction
Possible defensive reaction
increase awareness through
Show acceptance for individual
Practice to create new habit responses
and new "self-talk"
Increase exposure to target group.
is extremely difficult
Often advisable to contain, limit or manage
Very responsive to power figures
Change involves issues of self-worth, trust,
security, acceptance of ambiguity, and other
Very much like a personality disorder
Intentional Prejudicial Actions
People who behave in these ways are people who share some fundamental personality
characteristics. They have generally had difficult childhoods, they seem to
have had more physical punishment than most of us, they tend to have less
trust in other people and they tend to have very little ability to place themselves
into others' frames of reference. That is, they tend to be unable to empathize
with other peoples feelings. They tend to see human relationships in
terms of power and authority, they always remain on guard and they have a
difficult time forming close relationships.
The intentional prejudicial response is a more integrated form of behavior.
It has more purpose and is more an integral part of the individuals
identity. Acts of intentional prejudice are often planned. They are acts that
are very much a part of the individuals identity and are expressions
of that identity. To the individual who is behaving through intentional acts
of prejudice, the acts might be experienced as acts of defense --- acts that
are needed to defend ones identity and way of life.
Intentional prejudices are extremely difficult to change. The integrated nature
of the response and the deep historical patterns in the development of the
personality are both factors in this strong resistance to change.
When it becomes clear the behavior is from a person who is intentionally acting
in a prejudiced way, it is a management problem, not a change issue. With
the minority of people who behave in intentional ways to dehumanize others,
it is not likely that supervisors can make much of a difference with any single
interaction. These peoples behavior is rooted in early experience and
is resistant to change. However, they do respond strongly to signals from
those they see as having power. They are far more sensitive to small signals
from an authority figure than most of us. These people tend to be extremely
sensitive to who holds the power within an organization and will comply when
it is clear to them what is expected and what will result from non-compliance.
The flip-side of this was recently demonstrated when President Bush went to
Japan with some strong words about the Japanese business people, and a Japanese-American
businessman was killed in his home in Camarillo, California.
We need to educate our leaders to the power they hold for influencing people
who are intentionally prejudiced. The power of authority and the authority
figure are the only clear controls in restraining these peoples behavior.
It also appears that the training methods that are the most effective in reducing
the unintentional prejudical response will increase the strength of prejudicial
behavior from those who are intentionally prejudiced.
Unintentional Prejudicial Actions
These types of actions do not allow the observer to really know the intentions
of a person. They are actions that are automatic and not decided upon by the
individual at the moment of behaving. They may be in agreement with or in
disagreement with the individuals intentions. Often, they are simple
little slights that hurt deeply but are not more than nasty habits that date
back to the persons early childhood. To read intention into these acts
risks the stimulation of guilt, denial and avoidance if the intention was
not there in the first place. If the action was an intentional prejudicial
act, then change is not likely through a simple confrontation.
With these situations it is far more likely to be helpful to assume the action
was not intentional. By doing this, one can gently confront the behavior and
not the person in a way that will tend to maintain the relationship. This
will reduce the likelihood of stimulating guilt and avoidance.
One might respond: "For some people, words like those hold much power,
and people experience them as painful or uncomfortable." Or, "I
have repeatedly learned that what was once seen as not offensive is today
seen as offensive. As we gain in our sensitivity to others, our language changes
to reflect that sensitivity."
Often after an interaction of this type, the intention will be clear. If it
is not clear, it is advisable to continue to assume that the behavior was
unintentional. If the action was a simple remark, it may even be helpful to
comment upon how language and meanings have been changing and we all need
to change. Remarks of this type will allow the people who are not intentionally
prejudiced to talk about their own experience and will bring them to greater
awareness. This increased awareness will decrease the likelihood of the behavior
continuing if the person is not intentionally prejudiced. If, on the other
hand, the person is intentionally prejudiced, nothing has been lost.
By allowing other people the benefit of the doubt, we also allow them the
freedom to change and explore new ways of behaving without needing to defend
their old behavior.
Breaking The Patterns of Unintentional Prejudicial Behavior
In order to break this pattern of unintentional prejudicial behavior, there
are a few things we
need to do:
We need to remove the guilt factor so the process can be acknowledged
and discussed. This in turn reduces the denial factor.
We need to develop an awareness of the dynamics which result in this
We need to increase our association with those who might trigger our
own unintentional prejudicial response.
We need to practice thinking non-prejudicial thoughts and executing
non-prejudicial behaviors in many settings and in many ways until they
While these four steps may appear simple, there are other intervening dynamics
which complicate the process. Just as there are dynamics that can be used
to facilitate the process, there are also sub-steps and methods related to
each of these four steps. For example, removing the guilt and the denial is
often more complicated than it may appear.
Rationale for Programs to Reduce Prejudices
During the last two years, there has been strong research that provides solid
supporting evidence for methods of reducing unintentional prejudice behavior.
Upon a close examination of the research, I have concluded that there are
many methods for reducing prejudices which have not been utilized. Given the
effectiveness of such methods and the costs of prejudices in terms of lives,
health, safety, wasted talent, comfort and money, it seems negligent and irresponsible
not to pursue these training programs. It seems that all people who supervise
other employees, or who work with students, or patients, or the public, need
to have training to reduce their tendency toward unintentional prejudices.
If we can expect some employees to know cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)
because they are likely to be able to save a life at some time, it seems reasonable
to require training that will reduce unintentional prejudices. The people
of African ancestry in our country have an average life expectancy that is
six years shorter than the white population, and many of the causes of death
can be seen as prejudicial.
It is my suggestion that prejudices within an organization are most effectively
approached by a group of individuals who are rich in their own diversity.
Any group of people who do not represent a wide cross section of the population
will have less credibility. It needs to be repeatedly shown that this is a
people problem, not a problem that belongs to one race, sex or other subgroup
A group of employees or students are not as likely to introduce a successful
program to reduce unintentional prejudice behavior within an institution without
an acknowledgment of their own unintentional prejudices. With such an acknowledgment,
they are not putting themselves above others but stating that
"we all have prejudices to overcome." By doing this, they focus
on reducing their own prejudices and more effectively invite others to join
them in the effort. It is likely that any group trying to reduce other peoples
prejudices without acknowledging their own will have much less credibility.
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Since this paper was written Dr. Cole has written a paper on understanding
the strongly prejudiced personality. You may download that paper by
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