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DAILY TIPS FOR BREAKING DOWN PREJUDICE
Imagine this scenario. You are having serious issues with a product that you recently bought, so you decide to go back into the store and ask for assistance.
There are three customer service representatives available, all middle-aged women, and you find that the only noticeable difference between them is that:
One is wearing a hijab and appears to be of Arab descent
One has curly brown hair and appears to be of mixed African and Asian descent
One is redheaded and appears to be of Scottish descent
In the few seconds you have to make a decision, which representative are you most likely to approach? Your answer in this scenario probably has little to do with conscious feelings towards the customer service reps, and a lot to do with your unconscious comfort. As a young woman of mixed background, I often assume that minority women will be more likely to offer me compassion and support. And those unconscious biases go deep. Studies shared through The American Sociological Association, the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and The National Center for Biotechnology Information suggest that we tend to hire, befriend, and trust people who look similar to us.
Maybe you’ve considered these factors in your day to day decision-making—or maybe you’ve been ignoring them. I would like to suggest that we live in an era where ignoring race and prejudice is just as detrimental to our progress as consciously supporting prejudice. Claiming that we “don’t see race,” gender, or differences can lead to apathy that ignores the life experiences of those around us and fails to reevaluate structures that hinder the establishment of a world that is free from prejudice. But we can choose an alternative. Instead, we can seek out opportunities in our daily lives to counteract prejudice.
Now, it should be made clear that I have no intention to overlook the fact that major efforts are necessary to establish equality and justice in our world. The restructuring of a just society will involve reforming public education, reevaluating our prisons systems, and much more. However, Baha’is believe that society changes through the individual and the community. Focusing on the American Baha'i community, religious leader Shoghi Effendi emphasized in particular that freedom from racial prejudice “should be consistently demonstrated in every phase of their activity and life, whether in the Bahá’í community or outside it, in public or in private, formally as well as informally, individually as well as in their official capacity as organized groups, committees and Assemblies. It should be deliberately cultivated through the various and everyday opportunities, no matter how insignificant, that present themselves, whether in their homes, their business offices, their schools and colleges, their social parties and recreation grounds, their Bahá’í meetings, conferences, conventions, summer schools and Assemblies.” —Advent of Divine Justice, p. 36
With these potent words in mind, I’d like to share some daily tips for breaking down prejudice.
WHEN YOU NEED HELP, ASK SOMEONE WHO DOESN’T LOOK LIKE YOU
In a situation where you need help, instead of acting out of habit or comfort, you can make a conscious choice to do something that may be helpful in breaking down prejudice. Namely, ask for assistance from a person who looks the most different from you. I watched an insightful study, “Kids on Race: The Hidden Picture,” where Dr. Melanie Killen explains that these everyday choices have a powerful impact on conditioning our children, and that they learn about race—and even who they can befriend—through observation. And in a society that usually labels folks with light skin as more trustworthy, the decision to ask for assistance from someone who doesn’t look like you can be very powerful. You may make many of these choices each day, including where you sit on public transport.
BE COMFORTABLE WITH SILENCE
If you are part of a group that normally dominates conversation, try to give more time for others in the group to express themselves. In different cultures silence can mean different things. Often in Western culture, it is taken as a sign of disrespect and ignorance; however, many Eastern cultures view silence as an act of consideration and thoughtfulness. Although our view can certainly be balanced, it is important to be mindful of the role that silence plays when having discussions in a diverse group of friends.
WHEN SOMEONE TELLS YOU ABOUT AN INJUSTICE, DON’T ASK “ARE YOU SURE?”
I have been in several situations where I felt that either I or someone else was treated with prejudice. When sharing these experiences with friends and someone asks, “Are you sure?” it often makes me think I cannot be open and forthcoming with this person. That’s because the question would make anyone feel defensive. Whether intentional or not, asking “Are you sure?” is questioning a person’s judgement and credibility. Instead, ask questions that show compassionate listening and a desire to find truth, questions like “Can you tell me more about what happened?” or “When did you start to feel uncomfortable?”
ANSWER UNCOMFORTABLE QUESTIONS
Sometimes our past experiences can make us feel emotional or insecure when faced with questions about our culture and background. But, I believe that, if friends or coworkers show interest or curiosity about certain aspects of our experiences or history, this is something to encourage. True transformation will take all of us, so it is so important that we connect on an intimate level with others and share our stories. So, in other words, yes, I give my friends permission to touch my hair and we have discussions about the hypocrisy of the “n” word.
CREATE ART WITH DIVERSITY IN EVERYDAY EXPERIENCES
I probably don’t have to mention the “controversial” Cheerios commercial to prove that although we live in an increasingly mixed world, there is still much to be done to create a culture of compassion, collaboration, and respect. And media certainly has a role to play there. I remember a friend telling me that after she and her husband had their biracial twin boys, she realized how difficult it was to find books of kids who “looked like them.” Although there were cultural books, stories featuring mixed or African American children having everyday experiences were hard to come by.
On that note, growing up, I remember feeling relieved and excited to see diverse teens going through everyday life struggles. The couple Shawn and Angela on Boy Meets World and best friends Cher and Dionne on Clueless were a breath of fresh air in the entertainment industry. These shows gave me hope that I could have a “normal” relationship with someone of any background and that deep down, we all have the same desire for love and acceptance. [Update, of course with the rise of social media, I am excited to see many more shows featuring diverse friendships and breaking stereotypes of how people from different backgrounds are represented].
An added bonus were productions like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella featuring Brandy, Paolo Montalban, and Whitney Houston, still one of my favorite movies, that makes no issue of race and shows the beauty of diversity, in color and character. [Does anyone know of other movies or shows like this?]
How will you break down prejudice? *Story originally published on www.nineteenmonths.com, December 2014. Cover photo by Sean Bonner.*
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