Prejudice is, of course, a universal trait. We all prejudge others: this probably evolved from our survival instinct, which required early humans to make instant decisions when assessing external threats.
But to prejudge is to make a decision about someone based on minimal information – and despite the obvious flaws in this thinking, research shows that it endures. Some studies even show that we form a strong opinion about others within 15 seconds of meeting them. Last year, an investigation into employers’ impressions during job interviews showed that they were heavily swayed by eye contact, personal appearance, quality of small talk, and strength of handshake. All of these may have a racial or (race-related) cultural dimension.
The interviewer makes judgments based on his or her own experiences, but these could well be incorrect if the interviewee has a different background: the appropriate strength of handshake, eye contact, or even personal appearance is entirely subjective. And that’s even if they don’t make a direct judgment on the interviewee’s race.
To pre-judge is to make a decision about someone based on minimal information
So what do we mean by “racist”? This is contentious: what do we even mean by race? Does “race” even exist – is it an artificial construct?
For practical purposes, I’ll define it as the visible physical difference between people based on their geographical background (skin tone, curliness of hair, eye colour, for example). And I’ll define racism as prejudice based on race, combined with power.
In its purest sense, a racist is someone who believes another person is inherently inferior due to the biological fact of their race. This belief drove the centuries-long enslavement of Africans by Europeans, and also the colonial era that followed, in which Africans were deemed incapable of running their own lands. Part of this discourse involved associating Africans with a plethora of negative personality traits: they were supposedly primitive, simple-minded, lazy, aggressive and sexually uncontrolled. This became a convenient way of justifying a system of exploitation that created massive wealth throughout the western world.
And it’s there in the way Muslims are commonly perceived as a threat – be it from terrorism or grooming, despite the numbers committing these crimes being relatively tiny – because their religion is considered, by some, to be primitive. And although Islam is a religion rather than a race, these attacks are often racist in essence, because of the religion’s strong association with people from a Middle Eastern or Asian background.
Many people are aware only of overt racism: the kind displayed by the Chelsea fans who were caught on video chanting “We’re racist, and that’s the way we like it,” or by people who take to the streets to demand that those who look different be eradicated from society.
This kind of person could correctly be labelled a bigot – though in their own mind, their beliefs could be a rational response to a perceived threat to their own ethnic group by outsiders. It could be their local neighbourhood changing in appearance, or a sense of unfairness that help is being given to another group. Whatever the case, it’s quite clear that policies can be put in place to prevent those who hold such views from discriminating against others directly.
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More difficult to tackle is covert racism: either by individuals who have subconscious prejudices or by institutional structures that discriminate indirectly by default. In any given organisation, successful qualities are seen as those possessed by its leaders - in the UK those could include, for instance, an Oxbridge degree, excellent grammar, membership of a golf club. Different personal qualities are overlooked, effectively excluding large swaths of people who may be perfectly able to do the job in question, but have a different cultural background. Wilfully or not, there’s a strong pull to recruit “people like us”, who “fit in”.
This kind of racism is far more prevalent, and far more damaging, than the overt type – yet because it doesn’t have the dramatic impact of, say, cameraphone footage or a celebrity gaffe, it’s little reported.