Racism vs Prejudice vs Discrimination: What’s the Difference?

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  • Prejudice is an opinion or feeling about a person or group of people without a full, contextualized understanding of them.
  • Discrimination is the behaviour or actions (often negative) towards an individual or group of people, especially based on race, age, religion, class, and gender.
  • Racism is the systemic discrimination that targets marginalized groups (i.e., black people and people of colour).
  • Stereotypes are fixed, oversimplified generalisations about a particular group based on a shared characteristic.

What Is Prejudice?

Prejudice simply means to judge someone (or a group of people) before having a full understanding of them and (most commonly) to make this judgment based on one feature or characteristic that they have.

A person’s judgment can be based on basically anything, such as height, weight, accent, glasses, clothes, school/work, etc. It is important to note that prejudice can occur between people of the same group, for example, people of the same race, same age, same job, or same class.

Where Does Prejudice Come From?

Most prejudices come from ignorance. The essence of prejudice is to focus on one standout factor about a person or group and build a false mental image of who they are as a person/people based on that one thing. So, most prejudices do come from ignorance. When people are misinformed or uneducated on a certain matter, they carry that information around with them in the back of their minds as they go about their everyday life. As a result, if a person is misinformed on the lifestyle, behaviours, culture, or appearance of a certain group they will judge them incorrectly based on this misinformation.

But how does a person gather this false information about different groups of people? The socialisation process, which begins even before we are born and continues our whole life, is the process of passing society’s norms and conventions on to the next generation or within a group, which makes sure that they “fit in”. This includes passing on expectations of gender, race, class, disability, and more.

The socialisation process manifests in a number of different ways, such as parents, peers, media, teachers, and literature. For example, family is highly significant in the socialisation process because children will learn to function by imitating a parent’s mannerisms, views, attitudes, and behaviours towards other people.

The media is also key because the images and representation that people are exposed to provide them with a (supposedly) wider and more contextual image of society. However, modern media is riddled with horrific stereotypes and generalisations. Sometimes these stereotypes are exploited for comedic reasons. On other occasions, it’s a lack of representation and the fact that white media moguls have no understanding of black culture or black people.

As another example, mass media and popular culture like to associate black people either with crime and violence, or struggle. The rap and music industry glorifies gang culture for young black people (mainly men and boys). Most films (that feature a majority black cast or protagonist) put black people in a scenario where they are facing an overwhelming struggle. Usually, it’s either slavery or false imprisonment – a race-based issue. This presents heavily oversimplified generalizations of black people (stereotypes) to the wider public, which encourages them to build prejudices against these images and then against black people.

Prejudices can also come from past experiences. All people will create judgments on current events or potential future events based on similar situations they have already been in. People will learn from their past experiences and this can lead to prejudices – some may be justifiable and some are certainly not. Ultimately, our past experiences allow us to respond quicker in certain situations based on our expectations of those situations.

What Are Some Examples of Prejudice?

  • To assume a person can’t afford a certain item because of the clothes they are wearing.
  • Believing that a person of color has committed a crime at some point because of the color of their skin.
  • Not wanting to hire a disabled person because you don’t think that they are able to do the job.

What Impact Do Prejudices Have?

Prejudices have many negative impacts on society with arguably the most notable problem being the fact that prejudices create huge social divides. As prejudices are passed around groups, this isolates certain communities from wider society.

Not only that but for young people, prejudices prohibit proper social interaction with other communities, which is a crucial factor in promoting cultural diversity. In many high-income countries and main cities, cultural diversity is inevitable. Cultural diversity is simply a fact of life, so it’s important that people are able to function in this environment.

These divides within society drive people into the security of their own groups, which only encourages the further spread of false information and prejudice. This is because, with no interaction between communities, people aren’t able to develop an understanding of other cultures. As a result, the social divides strengthen, and marginalised groups are neglected and pushed further and further away from progress for their community.

Another major result of prejudice is the fact that with these social divides and institutionally implemented biases, there is an open door for discrimination. This is the point where minority communities are most noticeably affected by prejudice.

What Is the Solution?

Tackling prejudice is an important task for all of us to take on. We all have our own prejudices – absolutely everyone! Denying your biases is highly reductive and actually makes the problem worse. Living in a society that socializes all young people to believe that certain groups are superior to others, we will all develop unconscious biases – some of us may develop these biases against groups that we are actually part of. Examples of this include women who are misogynistic and black men that are colorist (prejudiced against dark-skinned women).

The first step to solving the issue of unconscious bias and prejudice in society is to recognize that you are full of these prejudices. Pretending to be “color-blind” does not solve the problem. You must see color. You must see the fact that white people and black people are viewed and treated differently in society by the media, the criminal justice system, and global economics.

To solve this problem, a person must first identify the position they hold within society. Are you in a position of privilege? To paraphrase what Dolly Chugh wrote in her book ‘The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias’ (read here) about battling unconscious biases: ‘privileged people have the greatest power to counter unconscious biases and support minorities’.

“Privileged people have the greatest power to counter unconscious biases and support minorities.”

Dolly Chugh, author of The Person You Mean to Be

Education is key. Education is what holds the power to change and influence the minds of many people. Basic facts and logic both point to equality and to the liberation of marginalized communities. As human beings, we all have an obligation to learn the things we were never taught about equality, about different cultures, about wider society. We also have to unlearn what was taught to us and the prejudices we were given at a very young age.

But why is it so difficult to educate some people? Many refuse to educate themselves and remain ignorant because of the position that their prejudices put them in. For many people, the prejudices they hold against others make them feel superior, and seeing another group as their equals may threaten that false superiority.

Another reason is that many people (including black people and people of colour) don’t recognize that there is an issue to be solved. This is because these individuals have been fed false information and see society through a distorted and narrow-minded perspective.

A key point to mention is the significance of intersectionality as part of a person’s position within society. Wealthy black men tend not to concern themselves with racism as much because they are under the impression that they have already been liberated because of their economic status. However, the reason wealthy black women tend to still realize the level of discrimination within the upper classes is that they are forced to confront sex-based and race-based discrimination from all corners.

Ultimately, in order to rid yourself of your own internalised prejudices against other groups, you must educate yourself and those around you. Recognise your position in society and, therefore your role in tackling the issue. From then on, it’s vital that those in positions of power use their platform to raise awareness and bring others out of their state of ignorance so that they can see the true and authentic culture, lifestyle, appearance, values, and attitudes of a group that they have misperceived.

What is Discrimination?

Discrimination involves an action (often negative) that is done towards another group or person based on a feature or characteristic that they possess.

This is when prejudice becomes more than simply an internalised opinion and is used to actively treat people unfairly and unequally. Discrimination is much easier to identify, given that there will be an audible, statistical, or visual manifestation of unfair treatment to a person/community. Because of the fact that discrimination is a behavioural manifestation of prejudice, discrimination can also be based on basically anything (just like prejudice) – e.g., race, age, religion, gender, class, sexual orientation, etc.

What Are Some Examples of Discrimination?

  • Hiring a man instead of a woman because you believe he will work better, based on the fact that he is a man.
  • Asking a person to leave a story because you believe that they can’t afford anything based on the clothes they are wearing.
  • Calling the police on a person of color because you believe that they have committed a crime based on the color of their skin.

What Are the Different Types of Discrimination?

  • Direct discrimination involves treating one individual worse than another based on the groups you each are members of.
  • Indirect discrimination involves a policy that is applied in the same way for everyone but disadvantages a certain group.
  • Discrimination by perception involves treating someone unfairly on the basis that they may be a member of a certain group based on a specific feature(s) they have.
  • Discrimination by association involves treating someone unfairly on the basis that they are connected to an individual(s) of a certain group.
  • Positive discrimination involves favoring someone based on a “protected characteristic” that they have, so providing ‘special treatment’ to an individual(s) because they are part of a certain group.

What Is the Solution?

At this point, a person is already acting or has already acted on their prejudice by mistreating a certain group or individual. It’s important to act. Often in problematic situations, we see the ‘bystander effect’. This refers to any scenario where a person is actually less likely to step in and help because there are more people there. When there are more people present, no one has to take responsibility for any action or harm caused.

In cases of discrimination, it’s important that people be ‘active bystanders’. As the name suggests, an active bystander makes the conscious decision to act by intervention in a problematic situation. This could be to defuse the situation or to reduce the amount of harm done to the victim. A person may be an active bystander in many different ways. A person could:

  • Record police brutality.
  • Challenge racist comments.
  • Educate others on the problematic nature of something they said/did.
  • Shift focus from the victim by simply disagreeing with a racist comment.
  • Call for help.
  • Offer help with an injury (physical, emotional, or psychological).

What Is Racism?

Racism refers to the structural oppression of black people and people of colour and involves institutionalised discrimination against these groups.

Given that race is a social construct, when it was first created it was thought of as a hierarchy (and still is) where white people were the superior race and black people were the inferior race. The concept was quickly politicised and further militarised to exploit people of colour and this system of oppression is still very much alive today, even in predominantly black countries and regions, as a result of European imperialism.

There are countless examples of this institutionalised discrimination but one very common and very prevalent example is ‘racial steering‘. Racial steering is a social practice that involves real estate agents directing prospective buyers away from or toward certain neighbourhoods based on race – their own race and the predominant race in the neighbourhood.

BLM, black lives matter, protest, racism, discrimination, institutionalised racism

Can People Be Racist to Their Own Race?

Yes, and in a number of ways. ‘To be racist’ simply means to uphold society’s system of race-based oppression. This can happen between, across, and within different races, regardless of their own social status. There are three key ways a person of color can be racist to others in their own race:

  1. Ignoring their oppression – ignoring the issue of racism allows it to thrive and continue in society, which greatly harms others within a marginalised group, given they have to endure this oppression.
  2. Adhering to the racial hierarchy and putting other races above theirs – leaning into the racial hierarchy and claiming another race to be superior (when there is no superior race) is highly discriminatory to their own race, given that an individual is verbalising or acting on prejudice against their own racial group.
  3. Colourism – the idea that lighter skin is better and more attractive than darker skin. This is an extremely toxic idea that has led to numerous stereotypes and prejudices that people of colour have placed on others within their race. Colourism is an issue that is much stronger for women because of the pressures and constraints of beauty standards.

Can You Be Racist to White People?

No. You cannot be racist to white people.

The idea that white people can experience racism ignores the fact that race is a socially constructed hierarchy – socially constructed by white people! Skin colour (along with other physical features) is not simply a spectrum. The concept of race was and still is designed to provide white people with primary power, which they have.

White people can experience discrimination, where a certain individual or group treats a white person unfairly or unequally because they are white but…

Racism is a systemic issue and is not simply about how people feel when others insult them or treat them differently. The issues that black people face are not that certain people hold prejudices against black people or that certain non-black individuals insist on using aggressive racial slurs because they are “just words”. The issue is the system of oppression that people are upholding and prolonging when they hold prejudices or discriminate against black people.

White people are not living in a system designed to oppress them, therefore they have the privilege of not experiencing racism: white privilege.

What is White Privilege?

‘White privilege’ is the term used to describe the fact that there are so many struggles, adversities and issues that white people just don’t have to think about.

Social privileges can and do occur within many social hierarchies, such as wealth/class privilege, male privilege, able-bodied privilege, and more. Many people carry the myth that a social privilege is defined by what society gives you and awards you because of your identity. For example, the idea that if you are white you will be given certain things that black people are not given. However, that is not what a privilege is.

A social privilege provides the freedom to navigate everyday society without the obstacles that other groups will have to face. Here are some everyday examples:

  • White privilege – white people don’t have to trek through an entire shop just to find the small corner of the shop with products that suit their hair, only to then have to call over an employee because the products will likely be bolted down or in a glass case.
  • Male privilege – males don’t have to spend around £5000 in their lifetime on period products or extra (the pink tax) for hygiene and self-care products.
  • Wealth privilege – wealthy people don’t have to worry about where their next meal is going to come from or whether they’ll be able to pay upcoming rent.

What Are Stereotypes?

Stereotypes are fixed, oversimplified, generalisations about a particular group or member of that group based on a shared characteristic.

This involves deciding that one person has an entire range of other characteristics, attitudes and behaviours based purely on one feature they have and/or a group they are in or are associated with. Stereotypes can be based on a number of things, such as eye colour, height, accent, hair, clothes, friend group, interests, nationality, favourite band, etc.

Are Stereotypes Ever “Just Jokes”?

They certainly can be. Sometimes stereotypes can be quite funny and appropriately used in a comedic context. When a stereotype about a certain group is presented as a joke by a member of that group in a tasteful and appropriate manner, then stereotypes can be funny. This is as long as no one is offended.

If a member of a group is offended by the joke, even if the joke-teller is a member of the same group, the joke was obviously not appropriate and therefore not funny. It’s important to recognise that when someone is offended by a “joke”, they are offended for a reason and whether or not you are a member of that group as well, you should not then be fighting for your “right” to exploit a stereotype that brings harm to your community.

It tends to be very clear whether a person is making a joke about their own group to make that group laugh or to make a socially superior group laugh. For example, black men often make racist jokes about stereotypes (e.g., watermelon, chicken, even police brutality) in order to make white men laugh. In situations where a person is using a stereotype at the expense of their own community (so they are only mocking and belittling their own community for the validation of another group), they are simply racist.

Racism, Prejudice, stereotypes, stereotyping, stereotype jokes

Also, when a comment is made that feeds into the oppression of another group that brings them harm in some way, then it is not “just a joke”. Making harmful comments about a marginalized community or group that you are not a part of is, most often, not funny.

For example, when a white person makes a comment on the stereotype that “black men are criminals”, this promotes a very damaging and untrue image of black men. Reiterating such a harmful idea about a group is certainly not funny, especially in today’s political climate and the common topic of racism in the criminal justice system.

Is Stereotyping Ever Justified?

Stereotyping can be justified in some scenarios, especially because stereotyping does not always bring harm to a community. There are many stereotypes that exist about many groups who don’t face oppression or systemic injustice and aren’t negatively impacted by the stereotypes that surround their community.

Stereotypes can ensure safety. For example, it’s common for women to stereotype certain behaviors in men to establish whether or not a man is safe to be around and comfortably engage with. This includes how he talks to women, how he talks to other men, and his general demeanor in a social environment.

Similarly, the black community may stereotype certain behaviours in white people to decide whether or not a white person is safe. For most people of colour, there are certain trigger phrases white people use that let them know they aren’t as progressive as they may think. This includes phrases such as “I don’t see colour”; “People are so sensitive nowadays” and “Why can’t we all just get along?”.

As a black woman, there are several comments or phrases that signify to me whether or not a man is safe for me to engage with. One ‘test’ that my friends and I use, is to ask them how they feel about Megan Thee Stallion’s Grammys. Racist and sexist men (black or white) will usually throw a tantrum about the fact that she won or more subtly make snide comments about her career or appearance. Sometimes, we’ll just ask a man if he listens to female rap artists in general. If his answer is “no”, then that is a huge red flag.

Stereotyping allows people to respond quicker and more efficiently in certain situations, especially those that may bring us harm. This is because we have had similar experiences before and in these scenarios, there is a clear logic that backs up the relationship between a characteristic/feature and a certain behavior or attitude.

So, does that mean that it’s acceptable to stereotype black people in case they are dangerous? Obviously not. There is no logic or reasoning behind the stereotype that “black people are [or could be] criminals”. There are no social patterns that confirm that black people inherently commit a crime (and yet black people are over 3x more likely to be arrested for a crime).

What Are the Disadvantages of Stereotypes?

When we reduce an entire group to just one feature or characteristic (make a generalization), we ignore the level of individuality and diversity that is actually present in all social groups. This diversity and individuality is extremely important because this is what allows innovation and creativity to thrive, which is the key to progress, not only social progress but also in industry (technology, film, fashion, etc).

Stereotyping raises noticeable political issues. Specifically, racial profiling has been a huge topic of discussion. Recently many more young people have been getting involved in discussions about police brutality. Police brutality is not always directed at black people. Although, most of the time it is and this is usually a result of racial profiling. This is a form of stereotyping. Members of the public or police officers assume that black people are committing some sort of crime simply based on their skin colour.

As a society, when we relentlessly create stereotypes that are spread and perpetuated by mass media and popular culture, social progress is heavily slowed down by the fact that certain groups are not being allowed to exercise their full potential within society.

More than that, stereotypes (if negative) can lead to prejudices. Prejudice can then lead to discrimination, which can then be institutionalized and built into systems of oppression against certain groups. On a social-interactional level, stereotypes can make it difficult for certain groups to navigate everyday society.

For example, the stereotypic idea that “black men prey on white women” and that “black men are sexually aggressive” is extremely harmful, especially to black men that are in interracial relationships with white women because of the spotlight that is put on them and the grossly invasive assumptions that are made.

Stereotypes can also cause trouble in people’s everyday lives because of the ‘stereotype threat’. The stereotype threat occurs when a person or group of people feels at risk of conforming to a stereotype. For example, black women may be overly aware of their volume and expression in certain social situations for fear of getting called “too loud”. This means that many groups will refrain from certain activities – activities they may enjoy – because they don’t want to fit certain stereotypes.

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