How Do People Become Prejudiced?

How Do People Become Prejudiced?

How does prejudice start? To understand, we need to consider turn to two aspects of affect—inborn capacity of affects to assess differences in stimuli, and temperament)and two aspects of cognition: what one is taught and what one experiences.

Affect and cognition may interact to produce increased vulnerability to prejudice
Consider the impact of parents who are anxious and create a “stranger danger” atmosphere in raising their children: Things (and people) that are different are to be feared and/or despised. Being mistreated, marginalized, or bullied inside or outside the home are risk factors for prejudice and violence.

Narcissistic problems
Fragile self-esteem, shame, depression, distress, fear, setbacks in life, loss of purpose, and other dynamics may lead to a need to project and blame in order to protect or enhance oneself, with resultant bias and prejudice.

Underlying such transitions, in general, are excessive negative affects and diminished positive affects, whether early in life or later. Much is known about the psychopathology and treatment of such individuals, groups, and leaders, but much is still to be learned (for example, Kohut, 1971; Kernberg, 1975, 1984; Basch, 1988; Meloy, 2001; Kimmel, 2013, 2018).

Social conditions can create fertile soil for nourishing bias, prejudice, and violence. It turns out that as adaptive and flexible as humans are, they are also fragile. When society does not offer security, esteem, and affirmation, then various groups within it splinter, and members then feel the need to protect themselves from outside dangers. Those conditions can only be remedied from the top down—by economic, social, and political structures that let people calm down, reduce their sense of threat, and begin to feel generous to others as they feel their society is generous to them.

Poor social circumstances
Poor social circumstances appear to be a constant in situations marked by bias, prejudice, and violence. And from social deprivations emerge distress, fear, rage, shame, and disgust, along with a desire for control, power, and greed. The leaders are important in these circumstances—for instance, consider the pathology of Hitler (Ullrich, 2016, 2020) and Stalin. And yet there are examples of positive change subsequent to horrible conditions: the work of Lucius D. Clay and the Marshall Plan in Germany and Douglas Mac Arthur in Japan after World War II.

Education appears essential to efforts to prevent the harm caused by bias, prejudice, and violence—and yet such education appears underemphasized and often misdirected.

In addition, politicians and armed services personnel attempting to decrease the prejudice and violence of groups need to know the dynamics of the groups’ specific fears, shame, rage, and deprivations driving their behaviors and fantasies. In addition, there needs to be a focus on understanding the malevolent leader(s), their goals, attributes, and pathology. Ongoing efforts to make contact seem essential, in order to create the possibility of containment and change. Finally, efforts involving education are crucial: education of the groups and their members about solutions to social circumstances and various aspects of possible assistance and reality. This can be done via various forms of transmission—internet, radio and TV, and various other forms of communication.

Let’s consider with two cases that deserve mention: Derek Black (Saslow, 2018, Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist), and Jvonne Hubbard (White Sheets to Brown Babies, 2018). Both were raised by white supremacists, and both ultimately repudiated the stance. Black’s father founded the largest racist community on the internet, and his godfather was David Duke. a KKK Grand Wizard. Derek Black himself became an extremely popular figure and leading light of the white nationalist movement. Jvonne Hubbard was indoctrinated by her father, the Grand Dragon of a faction of the KKK, to hate minorities.

Both Black and Hubbard began to question their beliefs in late adolescence/early adulthood. For Derek Black, the questioning occurred when he went to college and was befriended by a group of fellow college students, including some who were Jewish. He also fell in love with a female classmate who began to get him to question his cognitive rationales for his prejudices. Hubbard was frequently in trouble with the law during her adolescence. Ultimately, she was incarcerated, and, taken under the wing of older African-American women, she began to heal and become less enraged, giving up her white supremacist views. Later, she adopted a biracial baby.

My colleague Kalia Doner and I interviewed Jvonne Hubbard. We found her to be wonderfully open and thoughtful about her life and transition. She noted that the hatred instilled in her during her early years was particularly burdensome.

In both cases, positive affects and emotions—understanding and empathy, kindness, love, validation—nurtured by the people met at a university and in jail, respectively, were essential to personal transformation.







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