Most people think that they are not prejudiced. In fact, no one who has been prejudiced on an issue has ever freely acknowledged this. The word Prejudice comes from a combination of words: pre (before) and judice (judgment). Linguistically this signifies the meaning of the term: we make a judgment before it should be made. Normally a judgment is made after evidence is objectively evaluated. But one who is prejudiced about anything makes a snap judgment when it is premature and unwarranted either because there is insufficient evidence or because the evidence is somehow tainted by subjective analysis.
To take a fairly tame example: there was a time when if you were left handed, people made all kinds of judgments against you. I remember the Sisters in school actively persecuting left handed children, forcing them to write with the right hand. In the Italian language the word sinister is still the word for the left (sinistra). The evidence for that judgment was faulty. Today, being left handed is not a sign that there is something wrong with you. Our culture had pre-judged people based on what was just an aesthetic preference (left handed people write in a strange way, not like ‘normal people’).
Often, without knowing it, we imbibe from our cultural and familial relationships judgments and ideas that we accept as true simply on the authority of those who voice them. Much of what we believe to be true come from our parents and growing up in our families. There is a whole array of judgments and associations that we just accept from growing up. Some of these are disguised as humor as when our Dad or Mom makes fun of the national characteristics of someone from a different race or persuasion. By laughing with them at the jokes at the expense of an ethnic group we signal our acceptance of what underlies the humor. My parents, for instance, never taught me anything that would be considered prejudiced about people of color. But when speaking of ‘Jimmy’ the black man who cleaned our hallways in the apartment house we lived in, they counseled charity because it would be right since he is from a lower class than we were and so merited charity. But the underlying message of what seemed a harmless or even a meritorious teaching was that he is not like us and he is from a group below us.
Much of what we assume to be a reality has an unconscious or one might say pre-conscious quality. We pre-judge someone simply because of his occupation, ethnicity, skin color etc. It is a snap judgment that we do not even know we are making. Cardinal Newman compared prejudice to a stain on an old sofa. The sofa has been there for many years and we do not even notice the stain anymore because we have just grown use to it. But when we have a guest to our house, he notices the stain and asks: “What happened to your sofa?” At first, we may not even know to what they are referring. But as they explain, we admit to it and are at a loss how it got that way. Newman says that a prejudice is like that. It is something that has always been there and that we do not notice any more.
If this is true, we must be on guard constantly regarding these unconscious factors that cloud our judgments. We need to make them conscious to ourselves and refute them in our minds and hearts without getting defensive about it. We need to be honest with ourselves and try to correct these erroneous judgments which, when pushed to an extreme, can be dangerous and have disastrous consequences.
This self-critical stance is essential. But it is a hard thing to admit to ourselves that this is true about our way of living our life. We spend a lot of time defending our actions and thoughts. But if the truth makes us free, as St. John writes in his Gospel, than if we submit ourselves to the discipline of truth than we will not only be liberated but feel the deep joy that God wants to give us. Is that not what we are seeking in life?