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Friday, August 04, 2006

Prejudice – Understanding Racial and Ethnic Hatred

If you have ever felt embarrassed or shamed by an ethnic or racial slur or other defamatory words spoken by a companion or friend, then you already know how much these words can hurt the people whom they are targeted against. These words damage people of other races or ethnicity even when not spoken in the presence of a member of the group targeted by this sort of hatred. The perpetuation of prejudice harms not only those groups targeted by an individual’s intolerance, but also harms those people who perpetuate prejudice. Let us explore the roots of hatred and see whether we may uproot prejudice from our lives.

Prejudice – Understanding Racial and Ethnic Hatred

It is particularly sad how prejudice remains a deeply rooted part of so many cultures at home and across the world. We may sometimes respond to the presence of prejudice in our lives with anger or frustration. But I believe we must not condemn or hate those who hate others on the basis of race, ethnicity or other characteristics common to any particular group of people, such as, lawyers and bureaucrats or men or women.

We cannot overcome prejudice by hating in response for then we are doing the same thing; only our selected target group now includes ourselves, since by hating people of prejudice we have become prejudiced ourselves. We cannot condemn those who hate because condemnation condemns the person who condemns as well as those people whom the condemning person has chosen to condemn. We can condemn ourselves in this way because when we chose to condemn another individual or group of people we are closing our hearts to them; when we close any portion of our hearts we inhibit our efforts to grow and become more humane, loving, caring human beings.

There are three roots to ethnic and racial hatred. I would set aside historical roots because the events of the past which have not only characterized prejudice and hatred but have also fueled their growth are only ephemeral events. They are not the true cause of hatred or prejudice so much as the results of deeper causative agents.

These deeper roots of prejudice and hatred are sociological and economic in nature.

Economic causes of ethnic or racial hatred arise from need or greed. We are social creatures and it is in our nature to band together to act in groups to advance the prosperity of our groups and to then share in that prosperity.

Our ancient tribes often came into conflict with one another over resources due to scarcity or greed. To rally our own people against another tribe we would often vilify the other tribe characterizing them in an extreme and negative manner so that we may feel justified in any harm we may do to them while furthering our own objectives to take all of their possessions and drive them out of their land or slaughter them outright to the last man, woman and child.

We acted in this way in the ancient past and have inherited our prejudice from this root. While competition for resources is the reason people of different races or ethnicity have initially learned to hate one another, there are positive social benefits associated with hatred which help to ingrain prejudice and sustain its momentum as a force to be reckoned with within our societies today.

One of the benefits of prejudice as a social mechanism is that prejudice is a tool whereby we may build our identity as a group. By condemning particular behavior or physical traits of other groups of people we help to define what the members of our own group are by contrasting ourselves against people who are different from us. We help to create a stronger sense of our individual identities and our identification with our own racial and ethnic roots when we use hatred and prejudice to conceptually set us apart from people of different backgrounds.

Because we invest a great deal of energy to maintain our sense of individual identity or ego we are naturally defensive regarding what we believe about ourselves and our societies. You may be familiar with the saying, ‘the best defense is a strong offense’ and may now understand how acting offensively toward the members of alien cultures helps to buttress our sense of individual and group identity.

Another benefit of prejudice and hatred is the manner in which turmoil and dissension within a social group may be directed outwardly away from the group and its members to relieve inner stresses that might otherwise harm individuals within the group or harm the group as a whole. By encouraging the routine hatred and condemnation of a different class of people social groups provide an outlet for anger and frustration. Prejudice defines acceptable surrogate targets for venting our internal hostility in a manner that strengthens our group rather than weakening it.

Because hatred and prejudice can be channeled into positive forces in a limited social context they have a strong ability to survive and adapt to social change to perpetuate themselves in spite of recent movements to challenge prejudice and hatred and uproot them.

Societies take on a life of their own independent of the specific individuals which are their members. The lives of social institutions may span many generations. Social organizations perpetuate themselves through their cultural artifacts, stories, beliefs, music, dance, styles of dress and so forth. By providing objects and behavior which enhance the unity of the social group a social organization instills its values and prejudices in its members and maintains its continuity over time. Consequently, prejudice and hatred are perpetuated as part of the internal organizing forces of our societies. In the limited context of individual societies hatred and prejudice may be seen as vital cultural dynamics that help maintain our social groups.

Can we uproot hatred and prejudice and still maintain the integrity of our societies?

Probably we can not remove prejudice and hatred as characteristics of our social groups, at least in the short term. Prejudice and hatred are integral parts of the societies we live in. However, by making an effort to embrace people of every ethnicity, race or lifestyle we may begin to develop an understanding of people who are different from us that is based on acceptance or tolerance rather than hatred or prejudice.

When we have learned to embrace and enjoy the differences we see in other people we open our hearts and free ourselves from the chains of intolerance which we have learned from our native cultures by default. We give ourselves the opportunity to address hatred and prejudice within ourselves and outgrow the need to perpetuate them either within ourselves or among the members of our societies.

In this manner, we may discover within ourselves our own higher potentials for spiritual growth. We may then learn to love, nurture and protect everyone we meet, recognizing we all belong to one indivisible world which we must learn to share with everyone in friendship and trust.