I suspect that this is going to be a difficult argument to make, especially since it feels wrong to me, untrue, on some level. And so it not only takes a lot for me to break through these feelings to arrive at the actual logic that leads me to the idea, but I also suspect others are going to have similar difficulties believing me. Nonetheless, I’ve come to think that prejudice can be good and should be employed to the benefit of the prejudiced individual, though only in certain instances. To better explain myself, I want to discuss the differences in harms that come from prejudices when the ideas of oppression and privilege factor in.
It’s probably worthwhile to start with some definitions, for the sake of clarity. When I talk about oppression, I’m talking about a fairly standard definition, where people are governed or controlled in an unfair way, that results in unequal freedoms and opportunities between groups. In a similar way, systemic oppression refers to a power structure that creates and maintains these sorts of unfair advantages economically, socially, or politically. People are said to have privilege when they benefit from this unfair system, whereas the unprivileged derive no demonstrable benefit from such a system. There’s significant overlap between those who lack privilege and those who are oppressed and exploited. On the other side, this kind of relationship is complicated, because the privileged don’t necessarily actively, directly oppress or exploit––usually lacking the power or influence to do so––but the advantages enjoyed by the privileged incentivize them to maintain the status quo, thereby allowing the oppression and exploitation to continue. With an understanding of these ideas, we can start to see how harms from prejudice will be not be equivalent when varying levels of privilege are considered. The privileged effectively possess a safety buffer within the system that favours them. This protects them both directly––harmful words and actions toward them are unlikely to be tolerated within and are more likely to be punished by the system––and indirectly––advantages enjoyed by privileged groups are significant enough to render harms to them coming from the unprivileged less meaningful. In the same way, lacking such luxuries renders the unprivileged more vulnerable to negative words and actions directed at them, made even more pronounced when acting in concert with systemic oppression or coming from those with the power or influence to direct such oppression.
I doubt that all this is at all controversial as a vague concept, but controversy appears to come from applying the concept to society as we know it. For there’s significant disagreement over who the privileged actually are, and whether systemic oppression actually exists in the here and now. In this way, we can point at uncontroversial facts in an attempt to demonstrate both, but agreement breaks down when we attempt to explain them.i I want to unpack this a bit more in order to look at some of the drivers of prejudices and to suggest what goes into overcoming prejudices, all for good reason that will make itself apparent shortly.
Disagreements of the sort outlined above are outward symptoms of individual biases, and these are framed heavily by varying degrees of both solipsism––focusing on the truth in personal experience alongside an inability to understand or believe the experiences of others––and narcissism––the ability of the individual to believe in a personal good alongside an unwillingness to believe personal negative traits, often doing both in reverse when looking at others. Both factors make it more difficult for a member of a privileged group to see their privilege at work. They want to believe that the advantages they enjoy come from something good in them or something good that they did, whereas the harms they feel come from something external that negatively influences them, because it’s rare for anyone to willfully believe they’re actively causing harm to themselves or others. They may have started out with little––or at least less than they have now––and only feel that the advantages they enjoy came with hard work and perseverance, for example; it becomes hard to escape this way of thinking, because perhaps they did work hard and persevere through difficult periods, and it feels insulting to completely discount this thing that they lived through. They don’t want to believe that, in spite of the truth behind this, others may have started with less and barriers may exist for others that don’t exist for them; as a result, others’ hard work and perseverance don’t translate into the same advantages. This all does a lot to perpetuate these harmful biases. The privileged don’t want to believe that a harmful system props up their advantages on the backs of the oppressed and exploited; they more simply understand that the unprivileged lack something important that they have, and they could move into the privileged group by doing this good thing or improving their character in a way that emulates the privileged. They’re surprised at the unprivileged because of their inability to accomplish what they see as a relatively simple task, and so, with time, it becomes easier and easier to see the unprivileged as inherently lacking something important that is the cause of their lack of advantages, that the unprivileged themselves are at fault for this inequality rather than an inequitable system.
As I see it, the concepts of narcissism and solipsism are also important in understanding the process of overcoming prejudice, in that the stronger a hold they have over you the harder it can be to lessen personal prejudices. A lot has to do with trust and belief of the other––that they actually understand their own experience, that they’re actually able to vocalize that experience, and that they’re truthful when they do so. This becomes a difficult task when the expressed experience differs significantly from one’s own, and it’s only made worse or even impossible in the terribly narcissistic or solipsistic individual who struggles to imagine that they could be wrong or that their own experience could be of limited applicability to others.
Which brings us to the meat of the argument in favour of prejudice. The beneficiaries of an unfair system are incentivized to maintain the status quo by nature of the advantages they enjoy, and common biases exist within privileged groups to make it difficult to understand how unfair the system can actually be. With this in mind, consider what it means for the unprivileged to overcome their prejudice directed toward the privileged, understanding that overcoming it requires trust in the other. This means requiring the unprivileged both to trust in those who are incentivized to allow their oppression and exploitation and to believe things that make it harder to see that this oppression and exploitation is occurring, and why. It requires concessions to be made by the unprivileged that can destroy their own solidarity––revoking the power that comes with it––and their welfare more generally.ii Prejudice in this direction serves to shield the unprivileged from harm and, on top of this, harms to the targets of this prejudice are likely to be limited as a consequence of the relative advantages possessed by the privileged.
But I’m not suggesting that the unprivileged should never trust the privileged, for at least a couple of reasons. For one, there are privileged individuals who understand that society is unfair and who are trying to do something about it. And it’s not only those from outside one’s group, possessing greater privilege than oneself, who are unworthy of one’s trust: There are plenty of people within the group who are willing and able to harm others within the group for a multitude of reasons. All I’m suggesting is that prejudice is an important tool that the unprivileged possess to protect themselves from those benefitting from their oppression, but not as a replacement for a more general judgment. With time, experience, and enough exposure to individuals, those who are perceptive and honest can arrive at more reasonable decisions about trustworthiness than simply by holding fast to this as a rule. But all that is a process. I don’t think it’s possible to do that well with people you just meet, and no one possesses the time and effort to do this with every single person they encounter, so these quick and dirty rules are instrumental to survival. And, for those for whom the world doesn’t care––a world not set up for their success––even little tools or ideas like this can make a substantial difference, helping give them a chance.
i. Good examples of such facts would be that fewer Indigenous Canadians graduate high school than non-Indigenous Canadians,1 or that median income for Indigenous Canadians is consistently lower than that of non-Indigenous Canadians.2,3 It’s difficult to disagree with such data, but it becomes almost impossible to reach consensus when attempts are made to explain either disparity, keeping in mind the widely different preconceptions individuals of different backgrounds hold that influence this.
ii. An example that readily comes to mind is what results from the lack of class-consciousness within the working class in contemporary America. In a Noam Chomsky interview on Reader Supported News, he outlines the causes of this along with its consequences, including the attack on and loss of working-class rights.4 In putting their trust into their oppressors and the beneficiaries of their oppression, the unprivileged in this instance learn “not to think in terms of their own interests.” And the effects can be clearly shown. An analysis was performed by the Center for American Progress that demonstrated the increase in financial insecurity for working-class families over the period from 1989 to 2016, with a focus on the impact of the 2008 recession.5 This coincides with a significant decrease of union membership over the same period,6 on the back of demonstrable attacks by employers on worker organization,7 just as Chomksy asserts in the above interview.
- “The educational attainment of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.” Statistics Canada, Government of Canada, 25 Jul 2018, www12.statcan.gc.ca/nhs-enm/2011/as-sa/99-012-x/99-012-x2011003_3-eng.cfm. Accessed 6 Apr 2021.
- “Chart 11: Median total income in 2005 by Aboriginal identity, population aged 25 to 54.” Statistics Canada, Government of Canada, 30 Nov 2015, www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-645-x/2010001/c-g/c-g011-eng.htm. Accessed 6 Apr 2021.
- “Aboriginal Statistics at a Glance: 2nd Edition: Income.” Statistics Canada, Government of Canada, 24 Dec 2015, www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/89-645-x/2015001/income-revenu-eng.htm. Accessed 6 Apr 2021.
- Steele, Chris. “Noam Chomsky: America Hates Its Poor.” Reader Supported News, 1 Dec 2013, readersupportednews.org/opinion2/277-75/20712-focus-noam-chomsky-america-hates-its-poor. Accessed 7 Apr 2021.
- Weller, Christian E. “Working-Class Families Are Getting Hit From All Sides.” Center for American Progress, 26 Jul 2018, www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2018/07/26/453841/working-class-families-getting-hit-sides. Accessed 7 Apr 2021.
- “Union Coverage.” State of Working America Data Library, Economic Policy Institute, Feb 2021, www.epi.org/data/#?subject=unioncov. Accessed 7 Apr 2021.
- McNicolas, Celine et al. “Unlawful: U.S. employers are charged with violating federal law in 41.5% of all union election campaigns.” Economic Policy Institute, 11 Dec 2019, www.epi.org/publication/unlawful-employer-opposition-to-union-election-campaigns. Accessed 7 Apr 2021.