Defining prejudice

I recently looked up the definition of prejudice on Merriam-Webster in order to write this piece. I was originally going to contrast oppression and prejudice. But upon reading the definition, I realized that there was a much more pressing matter that needed to be discussed. The first definition reads as follows: “injury or damage resulting from some judgment or action of another in disregard of one’s rights; especially : detriment to one’s legal rights or claims.” The second which reads a little bit differently: “preconceived judgment or opinion, an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge.” This forms the very foundation of a problem that needs to be addressed: what prejudice actually means.

Something that has been brewing for a while in our society is the notion that people of the currently dominant groups are being judged unfairly. Men often express this when women make comments about their group in general, which spurred people to cry “not all men” and white people have done this many times, calling it “reverse racism.” All of this draws from a conception of the second definition, that prejudice is a “preconceived judgment” that is “formed without just grounds.” Many people feel as though they are judged unfairly based on their affiliation with a certain group, even if that group is recognized as privileged. If I walk into a room full of black people who are discussing the Black Lives Matter movement or their civil rights and I am met with suspicion, I might assume that it is because I am white. I offered nothing but my skin tone and so I might decide to call that prejudice, but here’s the problem: we have forgotten a key piece in all of this: context.

Wherever you find yourself on the scale of opinions, we can all reasonably agree that people of color are treated unfairly in the United States. Even white people who insist that racism is over, when asked if they would be fine waking up as a black person, will say “no,” which demonstrates at least a basic understanding of the hierarchy that has been created. These different hierarchies were created mostly by prejudice towards different groups of people, which turned into the justification of oppressive systems. This is where the key to the definition of prejudice comes in –when these prejudices developed, there really was a lack of sufficient knowledge. “Scientists” would proclaim that the people they encountered were “savages,” failing to realize the hypocrisy in their assessments and that other ways of living could be just as valid. Men would also judge women as weak and fragile without complete information about what women could do. These things are prejudices because they happened without knowledge.

Now, back to my example. Individually, my motives and personality are not known to the black people in the room, but chances are they do have a deep understanding of whiteness. They have “sufficient knowledge” about how my privilege operates in this world and they have “just grounds” to want to protect themselves should I decide to wield that privilege against them. It applies to more than just whiteness, too. Women who are suspicious of men sufficiently understand the odds of men hurting them and have just grounds to defend themselves. The list goes on and on. Here is the intrinsic problem with misunderstanding the definition of prejudice: it allows people to play the victim when situations don’t go their way. A white person being judged by people of color may call prejudice if the ruling happens not to be in their favor, a man who is passed up for a job that is given to a woman instead may call prejudice. The problem with both of these situations is that these are not examples of prejudice, especially since our prisons are disproportionately filled with people of color because white people are convicted less and women are much more likely to be passed up for a great number of higher earning jobs. Until privilege is stripped away and we are forced to stand on an even playing field, it simply cannot be described as “prejudice.”