There’s a kind of racism and sexism and prejudice that’s easy to spot, and easy to hate. It’s the overt violence, the hateful word thrown out not as an ironic joke but as a sincere insult, the flat statement about the inherent inferiority of a group. It’s vile, it’s sick, and it needs to be addressed.
It’s easy to see, and so it’s easy enough to reject it in ourselves.
But in modern society, there’s another kind of prejudice that lurks in all of us, no matter how educated or liberal or fair-minded, and it is not only harder to see but also harder to address.
It is the prejudice of the subconscious, built and crafted since birth by the world we see around us. Exactly how and when these prejudices begin to affect us is something I’m not qualified to guess, but a recent Always ad campaign showed its insidious effects. When teenagers were asked to run, fight, and throw “like a girl,” they delicately flounced their hands about and barely moved. When little girls were asked to do the same, they ran, fought, and threw as hard as they could. To them, everything they did was “like a girl” because they are a girl, and so they tried their hardest. They hadn’t yet learned that “like a girl” means “bad at something.” Once that message sinks in from teasing classmates and sitcom punchlines, how hard do you think it will be to get it out again?
The fact is that our subconscious is built to categorize things and people based on instantaneous assumptions that we learn. Evolutionary psychology is controversial, but if I had to guess, I would say that this skillset was used to instantly identify threats or potential prey based on categorical elements such as claws or number of leaves. That way, when you saw something moving in the distance, your mind could instantly react based only on the assumption that this thing shares qualities with some other similar thing.
But when we apply it to people, it very quickly gets problematic. Our subconscious immediately and without our control will find someone more or less trustworthy, more or less aggressive, more or less worthy of respect, more or less intelligent, more or less powerful—based only on the triggered categories in our mind that can only be based on the shallowest of qualities like appearance or name.
It’s why studies have shown that identical resumes topped with names that differ only by gender and cultural associations will be more likely to receive a call for a presumed “white male.” Or why professors are more likely to respond to a request for mentorship when the name on the e-mail is a “white male.” If you were to ask the people who responded to the study, I would guess that none of them would claim an intentional bias or prejudice, and would probably be quite defensive that you suggested such a thing. These choices and instincts happen instantly, and we can’t explain why, but they do influence our behavior.
And media contributes to how we learn to categorize others. When we see the only main female character in a movie reduced to the love interest who eventually always says “yes,” we construct the internal narrative that women are meant to say “yes.” And then we can’t quite understand when a real life woman says “no” and means it, forever—which is why we see stalking and violent reactions to rejection blamed on the victim for not fulfilling her role of saying “yes.”
When we see minorities painted as violent criminals over and over again, both in fictional media and news, we construct the internal narrative that minorities are more likely to be violent. And, tragically, that’s why it’s easier to believe that a grown policeman with a gun can feel so threatened by an unarmed teenager or child that killing them is “justified.”
We see white men portrayed in a wide variety of ways, from heroes to villains to mentors to comic relief, and so we don’t build the same constricted categories for them that we do for everyone else. They may even get the benefit of being associated with power, wealth, and authority, and so instantly be seen as more confident, intelligent, and worthy of respect before doing or saying anything.
All of this isn’t really anyone’s fault, other than perhaps the societies of our European ancestors who were trying to justify slavery by convincing everyone that certain people weren’t fully human (and I don’t even know where sexism really got started). The point is that throwing blame around now isn’t really productive, even though “white males” might feel blamed. But it’s not blame they’re really feeling, it’s a loose and unclaimed guilt that they don’t think they should have to take on themselves, and it’s a feeling of powerlessness that they can’t really do anything about it.
And so everyone gets defensive, and ignores the problems altogether, because they’re not as easy to solve as anti-segregation laws or bleeping out words or protecting people from violence.
But I believe we can start where it all begins—media. Our pop culture is a reflection of our society and its values, its categories, and if we change the categories we can change the values. Show women and minorities in a variety of roles, show them to everyone, stop telling little boys that they should only care about movies and books about boys. Don’t go for the “easy” joke that suggests “girly” = “bad,” or that being gay or trans is something to be embarrassed about, or that “plays” with racism because “ha ha, it’s over.”
We can’t legislate our own subconscious, and we can’t end this deeply intrinsic prejudice overnight. But we can start by seeing it, in others and in ourselves, and stopping its spread to new generations of a better humanity.
If we start by changing what we see, we may eventually change how we think.