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Painted Brain | Sociological Perspective: Discrimination And Prejudice
We're bridging communities and changing the conversation about mental illness using arts and media.
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  • January 24, 2016

Sociological Perspective: Discrimination and Prejudice

Sociologist W.I. Thomas once said the following:

“If [people] define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

In other words, people often act based on what they believe is true, although their truth might not be accurate. It just so happens that every time I hear this quote, I think about the ongoing issue of discrimination and prejudice. Americans have been battling this unstoppable force since the time of slavery to the present police brutality. Acts of violence such as terrorist attacks and genocide have marked the free country for much too long. And while the issue of discrimination has had its twists and turns, you may be surprised when you hear what is really going on in the minds of the individuals who are indeed prejudiced toward innocent others.

When the words discrimination and prejudice are heard, they are often mistaken as the same thing. This is untrue, as the two have different meanings. Discrimination is the denial of equal, fair treatment to others based on their group membership. Prejudice is an unsupported generalization about a category of people. To break it down, discrimination refers to actions while prejudice refers to attitudes.

Discrimination ranges from racial slurs, name-calling, and flat-out rudeness to unfathomable acts of violence. An example of extreme discrimination is lynching, which occurred between 1882 and 1970. African Americans were the main targets, and were savagely beaten for simple acts such as attempting to vote, becoming financially successful, or even using the facilities that were only made available to Caucasians. The most disturbing examples of racism were legal segregation and discrimination, which were upheld and viewed as moral by the justice system.

While many people choose to look at the discriminatory as “obnoxious” and “evil,” I take a different route. As an individual of mixed race, I’ve come across people with different ethnicities who have chosen to put me down due to my skin color. Rather than feel hurt by being a subject of inequality, I wonder what makes people this way. After studying, I find that there are both sociological and psychological explanations that people either don’t know or choose to dismiss.

When I was in elementary school, there was a boy who always gave me strange looks in the cafeteria. He continued to do this all year long, and it began to irritate me. When I asked him why he kept frowning at me, he told me that I was mean. When I told him that I wasn’t, he kept insisting that I was, and when I asked him why, he replied with the following: “You have to be, because you’re black.” The sociological perspective on prejudice is that youngsters who are discriminatory do not choose to be. They are because that is their norm. In other words, the boy who judged me on my race most likely did so because the people that he looked up to did. Although sad, it is the truth.

Robert K. Merton argued that people can combine discrimination and prejudice in 4 different ways:

The all-weather liberal is neither prejudiced nor discriminatory. They respect all races and do not judge others by color.

The fair-weather liberal is not prejudiced but discriminates anyway because of societal pressure. They will laugh at the racial slurs, but will not repeat them.

The timid bigot is prejudiced, but is afraid to discriminate due to societal pressure. These individuals fear other races due to stereotypes.

The active bigot is openly and proudly discriminatory. They will put other races down with a smile on their face.

The psychological explanation is a bit more far-fetched. Psychologist Theodor Adorno stated that discrimination is based on specific personality types. The main type is the authoritarian personality. This type of personality bottles up anger and frustration that nobody senses, thus leading them to take it out in drastic ways. When I hear this phrase, the first figure I think about is that of Adolf Hitler, who first took his anger out by scapegoating. The act of scapegoating is to blame one person’s troubles on an innocent individual, or in this case, group. By turning to extermination of the Jewish people, Hitler felt a sort of superiority that took away the overwhelming anger of feeling powerless. Unfortunately, feeling this power came at the expense of the Jewish population.

When one of the kids in my family tells me that they have been racially slandered, I do not tell them to fight back or feel sad inside. I tell them to think about that person’s reasoning. And while some are too young to understand what I’ve just explained, I tell them this: “It’s not okay to be ignorant, but it’s okay to ignore.”

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Elizabeth Chancellor writes about issues from a sociological perspective for Painted Brain News

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