“Being a black man, you always have to prove yourself” says Emmanuel, a Nigerian student at Yale University. “People implicitly make assumptions about you from the way you look and treat you differently.” The scenario described here is called prejudice. It is a negative attitude or feeling towards an individual based on insufficient information. It’s the prejudgment of members of a group or another person because of race, physical looks, gender, religion or any perceived difference.
For all the much vaunted social integration of the 21st century, prejudice is still a global problem. A 2015 European survey reveals that ethnicity constitutes the most widespread form of discrimination in the EU. In India, 180 million Dalits or “untouchables” are among its most wretched citizens because of an old, cruel caste hierarchy that condemns them to the lowest rung of the ladder. These people cannot touch or use even the common utensils others use. “My birth is my fatal accident” wrote Rohit Vemula, a Dalit, in his suicide note. “I am not sad. I am just empty. Unconcerned about myself… And that’s why I’m doing this.”
Few days ago, the Nigerian Senior Assistant on Foreign Affairs, Abike Dabiri-Erewa, called on the African Union amid reports of renewed xenophobic violence against Nigerians and other Africans in South Africa. Another news report from the US indicates that “historical, structural and systemic racism combined with implicit bias” played a role in the Flint city water crises. The thread of prejudice is interwoven all through these challenges.
But why is prejudice so widespread even though many people seem to condemn it? The reason is this: it has a blinding power. Many who disapprove of prejudice fail to recognise it in themselves. It’s easier detected in others than in ourselves. Our hearts are deceitful, and if we are not constantly probing it with the searchlight of truth, we will keep thinking we are tolerant of all people of all types, when we actually resent some groups of people. Prejudice feeds on stereotypes.
When a certain image about a group of people – whether based on past negative experiences or misrepresentations – is imprinted on the mind of others, a “single story” is developed. Talk about Mexicans for example, and a flurry of images of immigrants fleecing the healthcare or landscaping readily come to many minds. Talk about Americans or Europeans and most Africans think of sexual deviants. These are stereotypes. They are not only untrue, but also based on a single narrative and they make that single narrative the only narrative.
Here in Nigeria, almost every ethnic group has derogatory stereotypes attached to it by other ethnic groups. Hausas are dismissed as oafs and terrorists; Igbos as greedy folks and hucksters; Yorubas as cowards and betrayers and Edos as fetish and promiscuous lots. Just as the New Testament quotes a prophet who said: “The Cretians are always liars, savage animals and lazy gluttons.” (Titus 1:12) The social media today is awash with similar lines.
Someone who has barely known or interacted with 10 individuals from a tribe or race bashes on them in sweeping, condescending and derogatory terms. He puts gigantic groups of people into a box in which their motives and actions are to be prejudged by others. It’s prejudice nonetheless. When caricatures and stereotypes are reinforced by words, actions and (mis)representations, they form a bedrock from which tribalism, racism, discrimination and xenophobia draw their strengths.
The scapegoating of groups has a long history all over the world. For about 3 centuries after Christ, Christians were heavily persecuted and mistreated for no reason other than their beliefs. Tertullian wrote that if the sky does not move but the earth does; if there is famine or a plague in the Roman Empire, the immediate response of the people is to cry: “[Throw] the Christians to the Lions!” Similarly, when the Bubonic plague swept across Europe in the Middle Ages, killing about a quarter of the population within a few years, the Jews who were already hated by many were blamed for it.
A Jewish man in the south of France was tortured until he “confessed” that Jews had caused the plague by poisoning the wells. This information was false, since it was later discovered that the plague came from a bacteria, Yersinia pestis, found on rats. But the prejudice that was already entrenched led to the slaughtering of entire Jewish communities in Spain, France and Germany. People didn’t even stop to observe that the Jews died of the plague like everyone else! This is why prejudice is potentially destructive. It unnecessarily divides people, breeds resentment and leads to murder.
Prejudice can be detected by:
1. Negative remarks. It makes an individual speak disparagingly about the people he dislikes. Prejudice is easily detected by words. Anyone who underestimates the power of rhetoric to facilitate destruction should ask the half a million Tutsi who died in the Rwanda genocide. The 2015 xenophobic violence in South Africa was triggered by the Zulu king, Goodwill Zwelithini, who called immigrants “ants” and “head lice.”
2. Discrimination. With this, those disliked are excluded from social privileges, housing or certain types of employment. It makes people give you hostile glances even when they are meeting you for the first time. Some will make fun of your culture, even though that’s not the topic of discussion. It also manifests by preferential treatments given to someone – even in official settings – because of race, status or physical look.
3. Physical attack. It fans the fire of hate and violence and even rationalises it. In 2015, many South Africans – professing Christians – took to the social media to justify the murder of immigrants and even promised to do more. After reading through many of their vile remarks, I almost felt like withdrawing from the Internet and taking a laxative.
4. Extermination. Today in many parts of the world it’s not a difficult task to bring people to the streets to kill a minority group under any pretext. This is because the roots of prejudice are already present within.
What causes prejudice?
Our sinful nature: It makes us judge others by how we perceive them on the outside. Our carnal nature makes it easy for us to believe something negative about others – even if they are not true – because it fits the single narrative that we’ve heard about them.
The kind of association one keeps: parental upbringing and friends shape our values. It has been shown that children as young as 3 years of age can develop racial biases which they have picked up from others, especially parents. When I was little, we used to attend a children Bible club. During our major outings, our teachers would come with a bus, pick up some ghetto children in another section of the city and ask us to share our seats with them. We used to despise those kids because of their poor looks – something I’m ashamed of today.
This was probably a mentality we picked up from our own upbringing. We were so cocooned in our leis that we didn’t realise that there were other children who didn’t have the privileges we had. That’s why if your close friends are bigots, there is a likely chance that you’re also prejudiced as well.
Pride: a form of inordinate self-esteem that makes a person believe he is superior to others in terms of educational attainment, background, physical look or social status. A proud person feels better by demeaning those whom he considers inferior to his standard. Our races, tribes, status or looks do not make us better or worse than anyone else. God hates pride and so must we (Prov. 16:5).
Religion: How many times have you met Christians who felt “superior” to fellow Christians because of their spiritual gifts, denomination, theological system and even the Bible translation they use? This is masked prejudice. This can also come from some church traditions that put people into a box, dictate to them how they must dress, talk with other finicky laws. Consequently, those who don’t fit into the box are scorned or mistreated by those in it.
The non-religious are also guilty. Many atheists label theists as stupid, bats, nit wits, morons and mentally ill while simultaneously carping about the “hate” and “discrimination” fostered by religion. It doesn’t occur to them for a second that they’re the quintessence of what they are decrying. It’s amazing how people have their blind spots.
Nationalism: this is a sense of national consciousness which makes a person exalt his nation above all others and place much emphasis on promoting its culture and interest above others. It leads to xenophobic attitudes that deems immigrants to be culprits of every crime. But God is not partial and He doesn’t favour one nation above the rest. When we become Christians, we become citizens of God’s Kingdom and no longer allow the walls of earthly heritage and nationalism to divide us. (Acts 10:34).
The Lord Jesus taught and exemplified love and acceptance for others irrespective of race, class or gender (Lk. 17:11-19, 30-37, Jn. 4:7-30 etc). In the same way, we must deal with prejudice by having the mind of Christ. The love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5). This love cannot be faked neither can a non-believer have it. When we walk in God’s love, we will no longer prejudge people, but will want to get to know them and accept them as they are.
This was what Daryl Davis, a black man, did and he led about 200 white racists to abandon the Klu Klux Klan. Love is stronger than hate and forgiveness than retaliation. Let us allow the Lord work on our hearts and remove our prejudice.