The Great Discrimination Guessing Game!

October 29, 2008 | By | 7 Replies More

A boss neglects to notice your achievements. A potential love interest snubs you. A stranger acts as though you do not exist. An acquaintance does not respect your opinion. Sometime, somewhere, someone has failed to treat you how you believe you deserve to be treated.

But what, in that ego-crushing millisecond just happened? A bevy of explanations can rise up to explain this injustice. Some bring a modicum of relief- the boss in question had a lot on his plate, the stranger was in a rush. Others not only fail to quell your concerns, they cause a number of more maddening problems to bubble up.

What if, in your moment of neglect, you were just discriminated against? Have you really just been a victim of racism, sexism, ageism, or some other horrifying -ism? You can never know for sure. You cannot confirm whether or not the offender in question is a horrible racist, sexist, ageist whatever-ist.

This looming question, I suspect, tortures many people of discriminate-able backgrounds. The feminist languishes over why, exactly she didn’t get the job in the male-dominated office. The gay couple silently questions why they did not get the apartment owned by the woman with the large cross around her neck. The person of the minority race wonders if, and why, so many people stare at him on the street.

I have heard, several times before, the very tenuous claim that the good-old-days of open discrimination sure beat the hell out of these covertly prejudiced days. Now-a-days, you don’t know if someone looks at you and sees a person, or if they see a caricature. In such an ambiguous situation, prejudice can appear everywhere, and nowhere at all. It can drive a woman, man, minority, old person, young person, religious person, atheist person absolutely crazy if they let it.

I would venture that we all see discrimination more often than it actually happens. My hunch falls back on one of social psychology’s golden children, the fundamental attribution error. It goes a little something like this: we all think like terrible, foolhardy amateur psychologists. Very foolhardy. We all attempt to explain the behavior of others, yet we make a fatal flaw: we assume that most behaviors come from an underlying disposition, rather than ever-changing circumstances.

Thus, as the oft-cited example goes, when a person trips on the street, we say it’s-because-he’s-clumsy, not it’s-because-the-sidewalk-has-a-nasty-crack. In the same way, we may see a potential love interest of another race brush us off and say it’s-because-she’s-a-racist, not it’s-because-she-is-married. Et cetera.

Sometimes, perhaps, we even deserve the discrimination we get. Author and gay-rights advocate Dan Savage sometimes dwells on this topic in his podcast, Savage Lovecast (note: very very mature content). A caller, a young black man, complained that he could find no dateable partners in Seattle, because everyone in town was a terrible racist. Not so, Savage said- based on you arrogant tone and short temper, some of those people probably discriminate against you for being an “asshole”, not a black man.

So Dan Savage doesn’t have the most sensitive approach to the matter, but I do think we all need the occasional brutal reality check. Not every offense comes from a deep-seated, dispositional prejudice within the hearts of others. Sometimes the situation leaves us ignored, unappreciated, slighted. And, sometimes, we are just assholes.

This post stems from the frustration I often feel when I am around some of my more sensitive friends. These friends are devoted to quashing a particular -ism, and they see their target everywhere. Any wrong in the world, any obnoxious advertisement, any horrible comedy movie is a despicable symbol of flagrant sexism. I think they are overreacting. But as I’ve mused before, I’m not a woman, so maybe I’m not sensitive enough.

However, my response, based on my personal way of dealing with occasional “discrimination”, goes like this: Treat all discrimination equally, no matter what reason you suspect caused it.  First, check and see if you “deserved” it- remove  what I call Dan Savage’s “asshole” factor. Slow down, and consider that the slight has a situational, rather than dispositional explanation.

If you didn’t earn the mistreatment, deal with the prejudicer the same way you would a person who simply doesn’t like you. Call the person out on unfairness- if you have evidence of it- and don’t associate with people who treat you unfairly. It doesn’t matter why they neglect you, after all- prejudice against race looks very similar to prejudice against sex, to prejudice against atheists, and to prejudice against people who behave like jerks.

Hypersensitivity fixes nothing; I suspect it only makes the labels that divide people more salient. And by seeing all people as potential racists, sexist, ageists etc, we commit the same error that the really prejudiced do.


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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Culture, Friendships/relationships, Psychology Cognition, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

Comments (7)

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  1. That was the comment I was going to write:

    My mom has the tendency to trace every kind of rude, unpleasant, unkind behavior back to racism. I usually think that there is a bit of truth to it, but that she also exaggerates a lot.

    After spending some time with a friend of mine (white, pretty, fashionable, young, too snobbish to make anybody believe she is a pushover) and seeing the kind of rude behavior she got I'm more than ever convinced that most of these people are just freaking assholes. Maybe this was just an accumulation of coincidences, but I was so baffled that I mentioned it to another friend of mine recently.

    Anyway, I find myself less with hurt feelings and more with a growing impatience for having to tolerate their stupidity and bad mood.

    That was, until I remembered that she is white, but does not look that German. I think she has Slavic features. Well, the last sentence I still would sign. 😀

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    Erika: Your article reminds me of a discussion I once had with a psychologist. We were discussing the relationship between stress and creativity. When someone finds herself under high levels of stress, she will likely suffer an inability to think creatively. I believe there is a long-standing series of psychological studies indicating this inverse relationship between high stress levels and the ability to think laterally.

    Assuming this to be true, it follows that concerns that one is being discriminated against may will be the beginning of nasty looping process by which one gets more and more stressed that one is being more and more often discriminated against. I've certainly known some people in my life that are convinced that anything at all that happens to them happened because they were a [woman/person of color/short-man/etc.].

    It's interesting to see how people deal with potential discrimination. Some people turn the whole thing around and take it as a source of pride or humor that they are a a [woman/person of color/short-man/etc.], while others let it ruin their life. Some people are tremendously resilient, and they are able to look past the potential (or even the likelihood) that they are being discriminated against. It's certainly an admirable quality. In the absence of demonstrable harm, it would seem to be the best medicine is to assume the best in move on, because acting like a victim too often seems to be self-perpetuating.

    By the way, simply trying to be aware of discrimination for benevolent reasons often seems to backfire. I've known some people who, in the process of trying to study discrimination start seeing it everywhere in big doses. I'm not naïve: I know that there are many people out there who are highly bigoted (we are seeing many such people become visible during this political campaign). On the other hand, I also know diverse groups of people, people of many backgrounds who work together on a regular basis, for whom superficial differences fade into the background. There's nothing like having a common purpose to cause superficial differences to fade.

    I once went to a "diversity awareness" activity. The leader of the group took us through an art museum for a special "diversity tour" at which we look at various paintings and discussed diversity issues. In the process, she argued to all of us that we are all prejudiced. I remember being angry when we were instructed that everyone was prejudiced, because I do try hard to find commonalities with the people with whom I work and spend time (most of us do). Nonetheless, I can't rule out that I react differently to many types of people who would superficially seem different than I am. Here's one set of psychology tests that seems to demonstrate this intractable problem, that many of us are implicitly biased As you once pointed out, humans are forced to categorize. There's a lot of information out there and the only way to make sense of it is to crunch down the information.… We have no choice about whether to generalize, although we can try to stay aware of possible mischief caused by the categories that we tend to use.

    Our brains seem to operate (at least they often do) as connectionist system. It's not like we can simply turn bias on and off. There's an awful lot going on in the "hidden layers" of our brains, and I would think it impossible to rule out that even the most fair-minded person is devoid of any hint of discriminatory impulse, even though they never seem to act on it. Hence, there may be a valid reason to feel like one is a victim of discrimination, even though one cannot put one's finger on exactly what the problem is. On the other hand, it is my gut instinct that analyzing differences too often burns in the prejudice rather than lessening it. Again, it seems like finding a common group purpose in joining together with different-seeming others is the best remedy to concerns about bigotry.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Erika, I like the way you think.

    Discrimination, in its purest form, is a neutral concept, meaning that you make a choice of preference based on some observable characteristic of the available selections.

    In simple terms, anytime you make a choice,you discriminate.When I eat, I avoid any food that contains grapes, grape juice, or any part or extract of the grape plant. I discriminate against grapes. Why? First, let me tell you that I like grapes. I love the taste of grapes.The problem is that grapes don't like me. I have a food allergy to grapes. When I eat grapes, or things made with grapes, I get sick.The reaction ranges in intensity from a few hours of mild dyspepsia to several days of severe flu-like symptoms.

    So, in choosing my food, i openly discriminate against grapes.

    In the U.S.A. the word "discrimination" has a connotation that is closely tied to bigotry and prejudice. The law of the land prohibits discrimination in employment practices based on race creed national origin, and such. This noble concept is applied, however, in a very one sided manner.

    It seems that people are all for discrimination when they benefit from it. Take the concept of affirmative action. This is a law that requires discrimination based on the same criteria prohibited by the equal opportunity employment act in hiring practices for the government and its contractors.

    This sometimes causes a problem when a less qualified applicant is chosen over a better qualified applicant in order to fulfill an affirmative action quota.It causes more problems when a better qualified minority applicant is chosen over a lesser qualified majority applicant.

    Ethnic businesses and colleges are often allowed to discriminate in favor of ethnic employees. I see this often in Mexican restaurants, less often in Chinese restaurants. While many of these small businesses fall below the number of employees to require EEO compliance, many of those that should comply, simply don't.

    Nashville has two historically "black" universities, Fisk and TSU. Both schools promote themselves as black schools, and to the best of my knowledge, Fisk University is quite fair in its hiring and enrollment policies. TSU on the other hand has actively discriminated in favor of black applicants, and has lost several EEOA and AA lawsuits against it for its practice of discriminating against non-black races.

    Just goes to show you that racism is not exclusive to white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

  4. Affirmative actions where a less qualified applicant gets chosen over a more qualified applicant are useless. I'd rather see the money being spend on ensuring that everybody has equal opportunities to gain these qualifications. And when someone does get discriminated and decides to sue I'd like to see courts support them and rule in their favor. I wouldn't want to hire or accept anybody just in order to fulfill a quota. The government's job would have been to erase the obstacles that prevent someone from obtaining the qualifications he is able to reach. It's not their job to make others take care of their failed education policy.

    I've seen a couple of crazy Hillary Clinton supporter claim that Palin would be a big step forward for the feminist movement, because this woman would open the doors for other women to reach higher posts in government. I think they are all CRAZY.

  5. Alison says:

    Erika, you expressed many of my own thoughts quite eloquently. I've worked for most of my life to avoid jumping to conclusions, to cut people some slack, and finally, only recently, look them in the eye and ask (politely, with either a smile or a look of concern) if I've done something wrong, or if something is troubling them. So many people are quick to go on the defensive, to look for insult when none is intended, and I'd rather defuse that kind of reaction than aggravate it. It's a lot more difficult than simply assuming the worst.

    Of course, the other problem is that all it takes is one or two people in most of our lives who behave like exemplars of a stereotype to fix that stereotype in some peoples' minds. The "feminist" who lectures a man who holds a door for her; the black kids who vandalize a home; the goth teens who clump together at the mall and stare; any encounter that a fearful person has with a person or group that validates his fear reinforces it as well. In addition, the media attention given to people who, as you described, cry discrimination and racism, but are really just nasty people who want more than they deserve, plant the idea in peoples' heads that equal rights and anti-discrimination laws are giving special privileges to people who don't deserve it.

    It doesn't matter whether reality refutes preconceptions when personal experience reinforces them. As with so many other things, people go with their gut. It's just easier, and they don't see any benefit in digging deeper. Besides, if they ask another person what's really causing the problem, they might hear that it's their own attitude or behavior, and that would never do!

  6. Erika Price says:

    Erich mentioned the implicit association test. The IAT comes up in many discussions on the psychology of prejudice. Here's an old post where I mention the IAT.

    I am relieved by the comments this post has garnered so far. I feared I would come off as some prejudice-denying, I-don't-see-color phony. Thankfully others seem to feel the way that I do about this matter. Maybe I should share the post with the radical feminists I mentioned…

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    How apropos! The implicit Association Test applied to whether Barack Obama is seen as American when he is perceived to be "black."

    For the last year and a half, a team of psychology professors has

    been conducting remarkable experiments on how Americans view Barack

    Obama through the prism of race.

    The scholars used a common research technique, the implicit

    association test, to measure whether people regarded Mr. Obama and

    other candidates as more foreign or more American. They found that

    research subjects — particularly when primed to think of Mr. Obama as

    a black candidate — subconsciously considered him less American than

    either Hillary Clinton or John McCain . . .

    It's not that any of them actually believed Mr. Obama to be foreign.

    But the implicit association test measured the way the unconscious

    mind works, and in following instructions to sort images rapidly, the

    mind balked at accepting a black candidate as fully American. This

    result mattered: The more difficulty a person had in classifying Mr.

    Obama as American, the less likely that person was to support Mr.


    Read the full NYT article by NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF here.

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