OPINION: The benefits of prejudice


This is a column by Robert Pawlicki, a semi-retired psychologist who lives in Savannah.

I come from an Italian upbringing. Despite my Polish surname, my childhood was Italian, with Sicilian grandparents who have always been part of my immediate family. They fit the stereotype: delicious food, a grandmother singing Italian tunes, everyone talking at the same time, the same grandmother chasing her youngest son around the house with a broom when she wasn’t cooking. These are the good memories. They omit the dark side, one of which was deep racial prejudice.

The prejudices were not limited to blacks, but they were the most frequent and the most intense. Especially from the grandfather I revered. How is it that otherwise good people can harbor deep prejudices? The short answer is that there are benefits to maintaining biases.

The most obvious benefit is that it keeps the minority group down, making others feel better about themselves. My Italian grandparents were part of the wave of immigrants from southern Europe at the beginning of the last century. As such, they themselves were the subject of insults which, in my mother’s case, left lasting wounds. For struggling new immigrant families competing for jobs and status, the easiest way to displace their own frustrations was to make sure they weren’t seen as at the bottom of the pecking order. A difference in skin color was the easiest target among those whose surnames might be new to the American landscape.

A family history illustrated the hierarchy in bold type. My first big trip outside of my home country was with grandparents on a cross-country visit to their son, my uncle, in San Francisco. There my grandfather, reading the morning paper, came across an article which he believed to be detrimental to Italians. “Who do they think we are for,” he literally shouted, then followed that up with the running black racial slur. There was no doubt that it was important not to be at the bottom of the ethnic and racial hierarchy.

Not being last is important for self-esteem. It deters self-bashing on the backs of others. It uplifts the prejudiced person. It provides a source of connections to others who share their biases, sometimes with malicious laughter. These are not minor benefits. The very form of the preconceived attitude not only defines the other but defines itself. If others are labeled lazy, unmotivated, and dirty, the insulter does not proclaim any of these inferior characteristics. More frankly, this person claims to be superior.

Prejudice is a negative over-generalization placed on an identifiable group. It casts a shadow over an entire population and, once entrenched, selects information to extend and solidify the damaging attitude. He views conflicting evidence, such as success within the biased group, as exceptions to derogatory labels. At the same time, it allows each quote of a lower character to generalize to the whole group. It also sets up a justification for keeping the denigrated group in its place.

After all, if the denigrated group is inferior, they can give permission to treat them in a discriminatory way. The superiority of the Aryan race and the appalling actions against German Jews are obviously an illustration of this, but prejudice can still be horrible in less noticeable ways.

Avoidance of the group through segregation or community isolation is perhaps one of the most insidious. Restricting their opportunities and employment to service roles is another. As long as the dominant group does not know or recognize the humanity of the discriminated against, they can maintain their superiority and their prejudicial attitudes. As long as they keep the denigrated group separate, they can be comfortable in their beliefs.

I love my Italian heritage and its influence on my identity. But I work as hard as I can to keep the part of my upbringing that brings dignity and integrity to who I am and push back the prejudices that are just too much to bear.


Comments are closed.