Mind Matters: The psychology of prejudice

We all
have prejudices of one sort or another. And when prejudice is more a simple
preference than a judgment of badness of another, there is little consequence.
Preferences for beer versus wine, or Italian food versus Chinese, or even for
brunettes over blondes, give variety to our lives. However, when preferences
become saturated with projections of judgment of the defectiveness or lower
status of another human being, problems emerge.

I
remember my mother teaching me lessons of tolerance while she brushed my hair
preparing me for first grade. Tolerance and compassion for the differences of
others, as well as prejudices against others, begins early on in the home. How
parents act and how they speak about other groups of people gets ingrained in
their children. (Luckily, our views always have the capacity to change.)

Last
week, I viewed a documentary on the “Freedom Riders” — those young people,
whites and blacks, who defied the Jim Crow laws of the South by riding,
integrated on Trailways and Greyhound buses through Alabama and Mississippi.
Well, perhaps “through” is an overstatement of their thwarted travel. The state
governments colluded with the whites so that beatings of these mostly college
students was practically applauded. Even imprisonment did not dampen their
courageous push against the status quo of prejudice and discrimination.

Prejudice
against other human beings for the color of their skin, their weight, their
height, or lack of it, their religion, their sexuality, or their nationality
may have its origins in fear: Fear of the “unknown other.” The fear then can
become an excuse to project our own negative feelings about ourselves. We set
ourselves up as “better” and they as “lesser” (sometimes to the point of
projecting onto “them” a sense of non-human). These fully human beings become
surrogates for our own feelings of inadequacy and defectiveness. With great
bravado, we perceive ourselves as the “super” humans, the “other” as hardly
human.

Would
that prejudice were a thing of the past, but it is not. Families still teach
their children intolerance, as evidenced locally in the epithets that resounded
at a sports event from some students to the Hispanic Americans present. On the
national level, prejudice revs up again in Alabama, now not against African
Americans, but against the Hispanics (many of whom are citizens working there).

Ironically,
a new play, Fallow, by Kenneth Lin,
just ended at Peoples Light and Theatre Company. In it, a young man, privileged
and white, is killed by other whites who mistake him for a migrant worker. (Its
prototype may have been The Laramie
Project
, the play based on the true story of a hate crime against Matthew
Shepard, who was gay.)

Of
course, prejudice and hatred can be against religions as well as so-called,
“race” (a genetically inaccurate nomenclature). While other countries may be
intolerant of Christianity, our country appears now to have replaced its
penchant for religious discrimination from the Jews to the Muslims.

The
reality show about Muslims in Michigan stirred the simmering pot of prejudice
here. Meanwhile, Canada (which I’m sure has its own brand of intolerance) has
been producing “Little Mosque on the Prairie” for nigh on five years. It is a
wonderful sitcom that treats our religious prejudices humorously and with
compassion.

We all
need to look at ourselves to see where our own prejudices lie. If we judge
others for their skin, their religion, their weight, their status, or lack of
it, their gender, it is we who are diminished. It may be time to look into the
mirror.

Go to:
“Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide of the Southern Poverty Law
Center, www.splcenter.org.

* Kayta Curzie Gajdos holds a doctorate
in counseling psychology and is in private practice in Chadds Ford,
Pennsylvania. She welcomes comments at MindMatters@DrGajdos.com or 610-388-2888. Past
columns are posted to http://www.drgajdos.com.

About Kayta Gajdos

Dr. Kathleen Curzie Gajdos ("Kayta") is a licensed psychologist (Pennsylvania and Delaware) who has worked with individuals, couples, and families with a spectrum of problems. She has experience and training in the fields of alcohol and drug addictions, hypnosis, family therapy, Jungian theory, Gestalt therapy, EMDR, and bereavement. Dr. Gajdos developed a private practice in the Pittsburgh area, and was affiliated with the Family Therapy Institute of Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic, having written numerous articles for the Family Therapy Newsletter there. She has published in the American Psychological Association Bulletin, the Family Psychologist, and in the Swedenborgian publications, Chrysalis and The Messenger. Dr. Gajdos has taught at the college level, most recently for West Chester University and Wilmington College, and has served as field faculty for Vermont College of Norwich University the Union Institute's Center for Distance Learning, Cincinnati, Ohio. She has also served as consulting psychologist to the Irene Stacy Community MH/MR Center in Western Pennsylvania where she supervised psychologists in training. Currently active in disaster relief, Dr. Gajdos serves with the American Red Cross and participated in Hurricane Katrina relief efforts as a member of teams from the Department of Health and Human Services' Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.Now living in Chadds Ford, in the Brandywine Valley of eastern Pennsylvania, Dr. Gajdos combines her private practice working with individuals, couples and families, with leading workshops on such topics as grief and healing, the impact of multigenerational grief and trauma shame, the shadow and self, Women Who Run with the Wolves, motherless daughters, and mediation and relaxation. Each year at Temenos Retreat Center in West Chester, PA she leads a griefs of birthing ritual for those who have suffered losses of procreation (abortions, miscarriages, infertility, etc.); she also holds yearly A Day of Re-Collection at Temenos.Dr. Gajdos holds Master's degrees in both philosophy and clinical psychology and received her Ph.D. in counseling at the University of Pittsburgh. Among her professional affiliations, she includes having been a founding member and board member of the C.G. Jung Educational Center of Pittsburgh, as well as being listed in Who's Who of American Women. Currently, she is a member of the American Psychological Association, The Pennsylvania Psychological Association, the Delaware Psychological Association, the American Family Therapy Academy, The Association for Death Education and Counseling, and the Delaware County Mental Health and Mental Retardation Board. Woven into her professional career are Dr. Gajdos' pursuits of dancing, singing, and writing poetry.

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