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Pet Sins January 2011 Issue
'Allies' that are more like enemies - subconscious prejudice in the air we breathe

It is easy for those of us who consider ourselves well-meaning members of society to take issue with clear cut cases of prejudice - hate crimes, obvious cases of employment discrimination and the open use of slurs based on someone's race, sexual orientation, or other minority status. Most people who consider themselves decent human beings would agree that these expressions of prejudice should stop. But what we don't always realize is that very often, the same people who consider themselves non-bigots are also sowing the seeds for the continuation of the same prejudices they claim to disapprove of. Subtly or not-so-subtly prejudiced observations, selectively applied only to members of certain groups, repeated often enough by enough people, inevitably shape social perceptions and individual reactions.

Imagine if we spend much time with people who primarily mention pears in negative contexts, e.g. "Research shows that pears are not as rich in Vitamin C as oranges", "I picked up another bad pear at the market today", "our neighbor became sick after eating a pear," "I don't like pear pie as much as I like apple pie." Maybe none of these statements that imply the 'inferiority' of pears are patently false and some may even be true. Arguably, each of these statements, taken individually, does not prove the speaker's bias against pears. But this sort of talk only provides an unbalanced picture if the people around us rarely have good things to say about pears in general or any individual pear for that matter. We will inevitably develop a negative mental image of pears, unless we're exceptionally strong-minded, or have the level of self-awareness to be conscious of how our perceptions are being conditioned by external stimuli.

Children in particular are easily influenced by such messages. Even if the child grows up to realize that the picture that society paints of pears is not entirely true, some of the early conditioning will likely remain as an innate aversion to pears. The conditioned individual will 'instinctively' prefer less-maligned fruits to pears, or will automatically associate any mention of a pear with any number of the negative adjectives s/he has heard being applied to individual pears on uncountable occasions. This does not mean that the person is deliberately being a mean-spirited anti-pear bigot. This is simply the natural result of emotional conditioning. (The malleability of the human mind, which can be conditioned to associate two unrelated concepts, one unpleasant, one neutral, has been demonstrated in the Little Albert experiment. )

As a result of such conditioning, most of us hold prejudices that we're not aware of. Some biases, such as a distaste for certain foods, are usually harmless to others. But the widespread existence of conditioned negative emotional responses to particular groups of human beings go a long way in reducing the quality of life of our fellow humans, especially members of already marginalized groups. A well-meaning individual who is aware of his/her own bias will make efforts to counter-act it or at least keep thoughts to himself/herself and not spread his/her prejudice to others. Even some diehard bigots eventually see the error of their ways and change their attitude. But perhaps the potential for their change lies in the fact that they were aware of (though unapologetic about) their prejudices to start with. We venture to claim that the people who do the most damage by playing the largest role in winning converts to their prejudices are not extreme bigots, but intelligent and reasonable-sounding, well-intentioned, well-liked people who are unconscious about their prejudices. They see themselves as unbigoted, open-minded, positive people; they claim "I love all people" (though they apparently don't love all people to the same degree), and may actually treat individuals of different backgrounds fairly decently, but they consistently and repeatedly engage in the 'pear-talk' described in the preceding paragraph. People can claim that their discriminatory comments were not intended to insult to any group of people. But intended or not, the damage has already been done. Denial does not make prejudice disappear, and in fact allows its continued expression.

Based on numerous experiences shared by readers, we have, with the permission of contributors, put together a few portraits of composite characters who personify how we unconsciously exercise the common prejudices held in our society, such as racism, adoptism, and sexism. Although the individuals who appear in this issue are not actual people, their actions and attitudes are based on real accounts.

We share these stories and likns in the hope of taking a step toward examining and understanding the self-defeating or unfair tendencies present to a degree in each one of us, rather than to blame or shame specific individuals. As to why we feel 'shaming' can at times be counter-productive, take for example the current climate of 'political correctness' in the US has made it a great shame for anyone to be labeled as 'racist'. While this is certainly an improvement over the open oppression of the Jim Crow era, the desire to avoid being called 'racist' at all costs may not actually reduce an individual's level of racism but actually lead to an individual doing mental gymnastics to excuse the motivations behind his/her dubious talk instead of honestly admitting to themselves the existence of their prejudices and its negative effects. If we could acknowledge that we are all prejudiced in various ways to a greater or lesser degree, and that it is not a sign of horrific wickedness but rather the understandable, unavoidable effect of human conditioning, we may be able to admit at least to ourselves the extant our socially unacceptable biases and perhaps take steps towards deprogramming ourselves of irrational mental associations.