Confronting Prejudice: How to Protect Yourself and Help Others

Dealing with prejudice—whether it’s microaggressions, bias, or discrimination—is physically and psychologically demanding. But avoiding it is not always an option.

“Not everyone has the luxury of leaving a prejudicial workplace or neighborhood,” said Natasha Thapar-Olmos, PhD, Program Director at OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, the online Master of Arts in Psychology at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. External link  “But there might be things we can do and some tools to cope.”

What are those tools? Use this guide to understand where prejudice comes from, what it looks like, and how you can help others experiencing it.

What Is Prejudice?

Word choice matters. We often use words like prejudice, bias, and bigotry interchangeably, and there are aspects to each of these concepts that overlap. But when addressing prejudice, it’s important to understand some of the subtle distinctions. 

To understand prejudice, we also need to understand stereotypes. A stereotype is an oversimplified and widely held standardized idea used to describe a person or group. A form of social categorization, stereotypes are a shortcut for the brain when grouping information. Categories of stereotypes include:

Positive Stereotypes

Beliefs perceived as favorable qualities for a group.

Helpful Stereotypes

Beliefs that assist people in rapidly responding to situations that are similar to past experiences.

Negative Stereotypes

Beliefs perceived as unfavorable qualities for a group.

Harmful Stereotypes

Beliefs that spur people to respond unfairly or incorrectly to situations because of their perceived similarity to past experiences.

Remember that positive stereotypes are not always helpful, External link  and helpful stereotypes are not always accurate.

Stereotypes can help lay the foundation forprejudice—a preconceived, unfair judgement toward a person, group, or identity. Prejudice is formed without sufficient evidence or reason and can be based on qualities such as these:

  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Nationality
  • Gender
  • Sexuality
  • Religion
  • Disability
  • Class
  • Age

Prejudice can dictate how people treat each other, resulting in any of the following:

Bias: an inclination, tendency, or particular perspective toward something; can be favorable or unfavorable. When bias occurs outside of the perceiver’s awareness, it is classified as implicit bias.

Microaggressions: an indirect, subtle, or unintentional comment or action that is prejudicial toward a marginalized group.

Bigotry: the intolerance of different opinions, beliefs, or ways of life.

Hate: disgust or contempt for another group that facilitates a desire for separation, strong emotions of fear or anger, and dehumanizing beliefs. Hate can take the form of: 

  • Hate Speech: form of expression intended to attack or incite hatred of a class of persons.
  • Hate Crime: criminal offense motivated by a bias.
  • Hate Group: organization that attacks or condemns a class of people.

Discrimination: unfair and negative treatment different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age, or sex.

Oppression: a cruel and unjust abuse of power that prevents people from having opportunities and freedom.

Although acts of hate can be a result of prejudice, prejudice does not require hate. Engaging in sexist behavior, for example, does not require an individual to be a misogynist. Prejudiced behavior can’t simply be viewed through the lens of interpersonal interactions; it must also be understood at an institutional and societal level. For example, anyone can be prejudiced against a person of another race. But understanding racism necessitates acknowledging who has historically been marginalized, who is privileged, and what power dynamics exist.

Who Experiences Prejudice?

According to a 2019 Pew Research Center Race in America survey, three-quarters of black and Asian respondents and more than half of Hispanic respondents reported experiencing discrimination or being treated unfairly because of their race. External link  Black respondents consistently reported being most likely to experience unfair treatment such as being treated suspiciously, being treated as unintelligent, being treated unfairly at work, being stopped unfairly by police, and fearing for their personal safety. Asian respondents were most likely to have been subject to racial slurs.

Bar graph comparing the percentage of racial and ethnic groups who personally experienced discrimination.

Go to a tabular version of the data at the bottom of the page comparing the percentage of racial and ethnic groups who personally experienced discrimination.

Most adults acknowledge the difficulties with discrimination and prejudice that marginalized groups face in the United States. A separate 2019 Pew Research Center survey found that 82% of respondents surveyed believed that Muslims experienced at least some discrimination, External link  followed by Blacks (80%), Hispanics (76%), and gays and lesbians (75%).

Bar graph comparing the percentage of adults who believe demographic groups experience discrimination.

Go to a tabular version of the data at the bottom of the page comparing the percentage of adults who believe demographic groups experience discrimination.

According to the FBI’s hate crime statistics, there were 7,175 criminal incidents motivated by bias toward race, ethnicity, ancestry, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, and gender identity in 2017 External link —17% more than 2016. Out of all of those incidents, nearly three out of five were motivated by race and ethnicity.

Elissa Buxbaum, director of campus affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, said they’ve noticed the trend, too. However, she points out that increases can be attributed to a few different things. 

“It doesn't necessarily mean that more incidents were happening,” she said. “But it does mean that more people were reporting it and that more people were feeling comfortable to report.”


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