On the John
Originally published in the Indiana Daily Student on January 29, 2004
This is the first of a three-part series.
How do we end racism?
A popular definition of racism used among those who study it is prejudice plus power. This means only white people can be racist because their prejudices carry power within our white-dominated social structure.
While this definition tends to upset a lot of white people, it is a useful tool as it is always easier to fix something that has parts than something that does not.
The first part of the equation, prejudice, presents some interesting problems. It is the more accessible of the two parts, because prejudices stem from individuals, whereas power stems from a system. Of course, people influence the system, and vice-versa, but individual people are easier to change than exclusive systems.
So how do you change a person’s prejudices? Or more to the point, how can you teach people there is no inherent evil in any particular ethnic or racial group? After all, prejudices are rooted in a person’s belief that an entire group of people is inferior in some way, whether due to skin color, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, dialect, political affiliation or any other characteristic.
This is where the difficulty comes into play. Prejudices are hard to get rid of because they are not fact-based. If they were, then we could make a counter-factual argument to a prejudiced person and sway them to think another way. A person who thinks George W. Bush is a good president could be persuaded to think otherwise if he were presented a list of factual arguments concerning the president’s track record while in office. This argument would have to contradict the person’s current opinion in a way that would make him no longer like Bush, so if the person is opposed to gay marriage and is told “Bush is a bad president because he is opposed to gay marriage,” this would not be evidence enough. But if the person was anti-war and was then told how Bush feels about war, this may be enough to sway him.
Unfortunately, prejudices are not that easy to dispose of. A prejudice is not an opinion; it is a belief. And we do not get our beliefs from facts, but rather from our world view. Beliefs cannot be logically challenged.
Take God, for example.
I was raised in a family that believes in God, and as a child, I also believed in God. I had no reason to believe any differently. As I grew older and had more life experience, I began to challenge the beliefs that had been given to me. I stopped practicing Judaism and reconsidered my own idea of God — particularly the human characterization of “God” as a white-haired, bearded man who lives in heaven. While I have rejected some of my family’s religious beliefs, I still believe in a higher power that connects everyone on Earth. This is my idea of God, and it is as real as any other belief because it is based on how I feel and how I have interpreted the world throughout my life.
But despite the strength of my conviction, nothing I could say about my own beliefs and experiences could ever convince a true atheist that God exists, because he has formed his belief about the lack of God in the same way I have formed my belief in God. Neither one of us is using facts to form opinions — we are using feelings and personal experiences to form beliefs.
And while I once thought education alone could eradicate racism, that’s garbage, because it does not explain the existence of smart, educated racists — of which there are many.
So, we’re back near the starting line.
How do you change a person’s prejudices?
Copyright 2004, jm silverstein
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