Racialism. Intolerance. Preconception. Bias. Superiority. Inferiority. Stereotype. Would you own up to some prejudice, or are you “squeaky clean”?
When you hear the word prejudice, what does it make you think about? Racialism? Intolerance? Preconception? Bias? Superiority? Inferiority? Stereotype? How would you rate yourself across those being prevalent for you? Is prejudice something you are aware of in others around you? Would you own up to certain prejudices, or are you “sqeaky clean”?
The word prejudice is most often used to refer to preconceived judgements towards people or groups because of gender, social class, age, disability, religion, race or ethnicity, nationality or other personal characteristics. It often harbours unfavourable feelings or judgement even before meeting any individuals or groups and usually isn’t based on knowledge, facts or reason.
Prejudices, like Beliefs, where I wrote that in our childhood, can be formed by being “blindly accepted” from our role models; where, too immature to “think about them”, we simply accept and adopt them. Only much later do we actually realize this and perhaps adapt or replace them, often only when someone else challenges them, right? And some of them can be pretty hard to let go or change, can’t they?
There are a few wonderful quotes that add relevant insights to this discussion on prejudice:
- Einstein: It is harder to crack a prejudice than an atom
- Einstein: Common sense is a collection of prejudices acquired by age 18
- Ernest Dimnet: Prejudices subsist in people’s imagination long after they have been destroyed by their experience.
- Mark twain: Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.
Personal experience with prejudice?
Most of you know I was raised and educated in South Africa in the apartheid decades where particularly racial prejudice was not just written into the countries laws, but for us children living in privileged “white suburbs” and being totally separated from the “African townships” as they were then called resulted in us not knowing any different. Segregated schools, public transport, building accesses etc meant any closer exposure to the “African” was largely only as labourers or as servants.
Other than dining room table discussion of more enlightened families and adolescent challenge of the status quo, only when we were old enough to travel and become exposed to other insights (as Mark Twain suggests above) were we able to appreciate and understand the extent of the social injustices around us.
Apart from the volatility of the inevitable social unrest, racial prevalence became one of our drivers to migrate to Australia, where over the last 20 years we have progressively managed to eradicate this form of prejudice from our thinking, beliefs and attitudes. For my generation that is still work in progress, and noticing the absence of racial prejudice in our children is a very rewarding confirmation of the migration choice we made.
I have shared this background with you today, because it is one of the more extreme and confronting examples of prejudice, particularly racial prejudice. Those of us having been raised and living in first world environments today can say that we aren’t guilty of such blatant prejudice. But if we dig a little deeper, we would have to honestly concede that many forms of prejudice are all around us nonetheless, aren’t they?
Colonization and expatriation – the root of much prejudice?
Of course such superiority thinking has been around for all the ages, and if we look at all the colonization that occurred (and to a small degree still exists) then it has really only been in the last century(ies) that our attitudes towards this have changed and are still having to change. Today we even have laws against such prejudices.
In the past, countries and then companies made sure that “their people” held the positions of power in the colonies and companies. Blatant superiority / inferiority prejudice existed. That is slowly changing, at least publicly.
However if we look at the (mainly internet driven) globalisation of our companies and our economies, and the rate of “skills based expatriatism” that prevails today, then it isn’t as much the holding on to positions of power as the drivers as it is to assure the best available skills and experience on the ground to grow the required outcomes. And such expatriates often live in segregated, protected and “gated” communities where the use of servants and drivers is quite prevalent. They can be quite isolated and their integration into the local culture is made quite difficult, and so the notion of “superiority” is subtly supported.
Whilst substantially greater “expat” exposure in so many developing countries has contributed to a weakening of ingrained prejudices, many deep seated intolerances are hard to shake, as Einstein quoted above, and sometimes still come through under strong confrontation or pressures or socially (sometimes alcohol) influenced situations. This is where increased caution and awareness is recommended.
Prejudice or Ignorance?
In today’s “global village” of multicultural workplaces we are progressively more exposed to the subtle and sometimes not so subtle cultural differences. They provide the ability to better understand and appreciate the differences and teach us how to integrate their strengths and tolerate or influence their weaknesses. They hopefully also enable us to understand that there are other ways of working than the prevalence of the often arrogant expectation that everything needs to work as per the “Western business culture norms”. However it is very present and as colleagues or consultants or leaders we need to become more aware of these differences and opportunities in the context of initially tolerating ignorance and then coaching or mentoring such differences diplomatically and sensitively.
A colleague of mine recently shared an example of someone dressing in a degree of “exposure” considered quite acceptable in her culture but certainly considered to be inappropriate for our “Western business culture professionalism”. Westerners travelling and working in certain foreign communities need to be aware and respecting of certain dress rules that prevail in those countries and communities, just as much as we have had to become tolerant of such migrated dress codes in our own local communities. We discussed other culturally influenced behaviours like certain caste conditioning leading to seemingly aggressive behaviour that strongly “invades our space” being seen in their eyes as a mark of respect for us, yet seen by us as unacceptable or at worst uncomfortable.
The recent television series “Go back to where you came from” was a very powerful means of highlighting the ignorance many of us were guilty of in terms of the drivers for people to risk their very lives and that of their children in order to flee persecution or ethnic violence or to want to find a life elsewhere that we take for granted.
I love the advertising I have seen that in the case of disability suggests we should: “see through the disability to recognize the capability of the person behind it”. I have learned to give anyone the benefit of the doubt to start with; that no matter what the “external package” might present, that there can and usually is a depth of knowledge and experience of value within it or behind it; that everyone deserves respect to start with until they give us a reason not to. Isn’t this where prejudice starts? That we look at another and “size them up” based on presence or presentation or their social standing etc? Never acceptable, but very prevalent, isn’t it?
I have done a lot of flying recently and a colleague recommended a French movie I should watch: The Intouchables with Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy. After he becomes a quadriplegic from a paragliding accident, a millionaire aristocrat hires a street smart African ex-con young man to be his caretaker. A delightful clash of class and prejudice plays out very humorously with remarkable results overcoming seemingly impossibly reconcilable differences. For me it was just such a powerful outline of the prevalence of prejudice that trust and perseverance can overcome.
I have learned and often teach in my diplomacy and “soft skills” grooming by acknowledging that the other person is different doesn’t make either party right or wrong or the behaviour good or bad. I have learned to seek permission to question the difference and look for any cultural background I may be ignorant or intolerant of. Only having understood that (and again sought their permission to do so) do I believe it appropriate to “coach” that person into appreciating the subtleties and impact their attitude or behaviour can have on our locally or globally considered “professional business norm”.
Equally when I’m traveling or more importantly working in another country or culture, I believe that the onus is on me to research and learn and be curious about any cultural differences and how they might need to play out differently in that culture. That way I can assure not to offend and just as importantly to not miss out on any ability to influence my expected outcomes.
Some current examples
In my career management coaching of Indian clients I have found that they suffer very subtle but very powerful prejudice against them in the recruitment space, to the extent that they sometimes even consider initially changing their resume names “just to get over the first obstacle”. I have become aware of some terrible behaviour towards call center operators because of their accent giving their background away. Just observing the public and political debate around same sex marriage shows how polarized our community seems to be across the prejudice towards such differences. We really can’t say that there isn’t any prejudice around us, can we? It is alive and well and each of us needs to be aware of our own positions towards it and how we can play a part in eradicating it.
And so it’s time to ask the so what question again. Having covered the ground we have together, where do you see yourself in respect of the prejudice discussion? How aware are you of prejudice around you? How tolerant are you towards it? Do you act when it raises its head in interactions with, against or amongst those around you, or do you passively look the other way? Do you stand up for those affected and challenge the perpetrator or do you walk away?
In the workplace are you able to recognize prejudice and diplomatically influence it for the betterment of the working environment, for the improved integration of cultural diversity and the awareness of differences?
I believe that as leaders we don’t only have the responsibility to address prejudice (not only in the workplace) but have the opportunity to leverage cultural diversity that enhances harmonious and productive interaction. We can all learn so much from each other’s differences, particularly in such multicultural workplaces as globalized companies provide. Why not become aware of the catalysts we can all be towards achieving that? We know we all can, don’t we?