published Thursday, April 12th, 2012

Upton: Changing from the inside out

Tabi Upton

Humans, by nature, are prejudiced. To those who are shocked by this fact of life, perhaps I can explain it this way: We all have a preference for certain groups or people over others.

Some of us prefer to spend time with people of a certain religious or even denominational leaning; others feel most comfortable with people of a particular socio-economic class. The majority of us feel most comfortable around people who share our particular cultural context.

Living is a largely subjective experience. Our personal lives are full of histories, experiences, beliefs and subconscious workings that often make interpersonal objectivity a fleeting idea.

Most people say they are not prejudiced. However, social scientists would beg to differ -- and have repeatedly. In the landmark book "Emotional Intelligence," by Daniel Goleman, social psychologist Thomas Pettigrew says, "The emotions of prejudice are formed in childhood, while the beliefs that are used to justify it come later. ... You may want to change your prejudice, but it is far easier to change your intellectual beliefs than your deep feelings. Many [white] Southerners have confessed to me, for instance, that even though in their minds they no longer feel prejudice against blacks, they feel squeamish when they shake hands with a black [person]. The feelings are left over from what they learned in their families as children."

Studies recent and historic have outlined with dolls, pictures and mock scenarios how perceptions of people who look certain ways are developed in children as young as 4 and 5 years old. They are often acting out of unspoken emotional influences, subtle behavioral codes and, on some occasions, the overt modeling from the adults around them.

Most human communication is nonverbal, which helps explain why people often sense if they are welcome or not, or if someone feels uncomfortable, nervous or angry in their presence -- even when they speak in what appears to be a relaxed, open and friendly manner.

So what do we do with these internal and often subconscious perceptions that often guide us? Goleman, who believes that addressing our hidden prejudices is an important way to grow in emotional intelligence, believes that simply putting people of different backgrounds together does little to eradicate deep-seated prejudice. He suggests doing something like the following:

• We must become aware of our propensity to see people subjectively and act in open and nonprejudiced ways despite our knee-jerk feelings.

• We must not tolerate prejudice. When one person makes a negative remark or slur about a particular group, it seems to prompt others to do the same. One can change the atmosphere of any dialogue by moving the focus back to positive ground. One can also speak out against prejudice in any communal setting.

• Working together toward a common goal seems to do more to break down walls than anything else. For example, those who participate in multicultural sports teams, diverse groups that promote social equality, heterogeneous military campaigns, etc. seem to more easily address and melt away their prejudices.

• We must remember that having a diversity of thoughts and perceptions around us will only enhance our work, learning and living environments.

Our recurring national controversies concerning race, religious, gender and other orientations provide opportunities for us all to take a long, hard look at our inner landscapes and courageously work toward change from the inside out.

Tabi Upton, MA-lpc is a local therapist and writer. Email her at tabiupton@bellsouth.net.

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