I have a hidden prejudice against a certain group of people.
There. I said it. I’m posting it online for the world to read and digest. Where did it come from? How did I discover that it existed within the walls of my soul, influencing the way I acted around this group of people and how I felt about them?
I will gladly tell you about it. But first, I think I need to just clear the air for anyone who is trying to figure out who the target is for my hidden prejudice.
I have an issue with smokers. When did it start? I think back to my early years, listening to my teachers and parents talk about the dangers of smoking, and all the anti-smoking campaigns I have heard over the years. Perhaps my perception of smokers was based on the stories I read about people burning to death in their beds from a lit cigarette or forest fires started by someone who was smoking. I’ve seen the litter caused by unused portions of cigarettes and I have endured second hand smoke from people smoking in public places. In my mind, all this added up to the conclusion that smokers are weak human beings who can’t stand up under peer pressure and don’t have the willpower to quit. They are irresponsible, lazy, messy, rude, selfish and don’t care how their smoking habit affects those around them.
Special note to any smokers or former smokers reading this who are among my family or friends, I DO NOT FEEL THIS WAY ABOUT YOU.
Isn’t it great how the human brain can compartmentalize people and situations separately? Some thoughts and feelings that may seem to be contradictory can be rationalized within our minds based on the category in which we place them.
Somehow, I’m able to reconcile my beliefs about smokers in general by putting them in a separate category from the specific people with whom I have an established relationship. In this way, I can feel very differently about people I care about, who also happen to smoke.
I would never call my friends or family members irresponsible, lazy, messy, rude, selfish or uncaring. I KNOW THEM.
I think this is a very important point when trying to understand hidden prejudice. I’ll explain more in a minute. First of all, I want to explain how I discovered my hidden prejudice toward smokers a certain summer afternoon about five years ago.
Here’s the story: My husband and I, with our four little kids, were enjoying ice cream with his sister’s family at a local ice cream shop in Mobile, Alabama. As we got ready to leave the store, we realized that it was pouring down rain outside. We had left our umbrellas in our van which was parked on the other side of the parking lot. As I stood under the small overhang area outside the store, watching my husband run out to the van, I tried to figure out the best way to keep the kids from running out in the rain. That was when I noticed someone standing nearby smoking a cigarette.
My gut reaction was immediate. I groaned internally, as I thought to myself, “Great. Not only are we going to get soaking wet, but we have to deal with this guy’s cigarette smoke, as well.” Every negative thought I had about smokers came to my mind as I picked up my two year old and tried to subtly gather my four year old, six year old and seven year old together so that we could stand as far away from the smoker as possible. In my mind, he was just another irresponsible, lazy, messy, rude, selfish and uncaring individual.
And that’s when the man did something unexpected. As my husband pulled up with our family van, the man put out his cigarette and came running over to me with an open umbrella. I was taken aback as he insisted on helping me get the children to the car so they wouldn’t get wet. It took a couple trips, but when we were done, I smiled sheepishly at him and thanked him.
As we drove away, I realized three important things:
1. I have a hidden prejudice against smokers.
2. Not all smokers line up with my prejudice.
3. My prejudice against smokers isn’t an accurate portrayal of all people who smoke.
Now I’d like to come back to my earlier point about understanding hidden prejudices. The best way to find out if you have a hidden prejudice, it is to test how you feel when you see a stranger in that specific category.
Begin by asking yourself, what is your gut reaction when you see a stranger in a specific category? How do you feel when you don’t have any other information about them beside the category that jumps out to you first? What if that category is a skin color? Or people of a specific nationality? Or people from a specific area of town or neighborhood? Or people who hold a specific type of job? Like the police? Or lawyers? Or journalists? Republicans? Democrats?
I think some of you are already feeling that gut reaction just looking at the words I’ve written above. Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that categories of specific people groups should be compared to the bad habit of smoking. Obviously, those are two different things. People are not a bad habit. But when we are talking about how prejudices form, the same principles apply.
What I had to realize is that every experience that I have in life either feeds on the prejudices I have or breaks those prejudices down.
After all, there are plenty of examples to backup my prejudice against smokers. I still see cigarette butts littering public areas. I still hear about people starting fires accidentally because they weren’t responsible with their smoking habit. Not too long ago, when I was stepping off an elevator, a smoker stepping into the elevator blew a huge puff of smoke directly into my face.
FIND YOUR UMBRELLA PERSON
However, realizing that I have a prejudice against people who smoke, I can stop those prejudices from influencing my reaction to strangers who smoke by thinking about my “umbrella” man. Now I can remind myself that not all people who smoke are irresponsible, lazy, messy, rude, selfish and uncaring. In fact, some are very kind and will go out of their way to help a stranger who is caught in the rain with four small children.
I am so grateful for that moment. One moment was all I needed. Because of that one moment I was able to have a bright, vibrant example of unmerited grace extended to me from someone I was holding a prejudice. We all need to find those umbrella people in our lives in order to break through our prejudices. I can’t think of anything else that will influence our souls in a more powerful and effective way.
BE AN UMBRELLA PERSON FOR OTHERS
I also think this situation can be quite meaningful when reflecting on the racial, political and social tensions we are seeing today. Whether we do it intentionally or not, many of us fall into a category of someone else’s prejudice. How can we provide an umbrella when there is a downpour of fear, hate and anger raging outside?
I want to become that “umbrella” person for others. Sometimes it’s not enough to just know in my head that I don’t stand for injustice, social inequality or racism. But I know I can’t fight hidden prejudice with words alone. I have to do it with actions that contradict those gut reactions that stem from the roots of the prejudice beliefs held about certain people.
I want to go back to my prejudice for people who smoke. If a group of smokers started protesting against non-smokers (like me) by destroying things, committing unlawful acts and being hateful in the efforts to force me to accept their smoking habits, that’s only going to feed the prejudice I already have for them. In the end, that is never going to change my mind about them.
Also, consider what would happen if that group of smokers try to win me over with facts and figures to dispel my opinions on smokers and change my behavior toward them? They could tell me about all the people dying for obesity and abuse of alcohol or other types of drugs. They could be logical and straight forward, and have some really great arguments in their favor. But mostly likely, they still won’t change the way I feel. The reason why logic doesn’t usually help to win over people with hidden prejudice is because those prejudices don’t reside in the logical spaces of our minds. They get stuck in the dusty, dark places in our souls that we don’t like to show people. In a debate of logic, the prejudices we have usually ends up builds a wall between our brains and our hearts, and the members of each side remain fixed on the opposite sides of the debate.
What makes the difference?
It only took one man extending grace toward me. And that’s what being “an umbrella person” is all about. It’s about grace extended from one human being to another. It’s the grace that keeps the rain of fear, anger and hate from drenching our souls, and brings us together under the umbrella of grace even if we stand on different sides of an issue or platform.
In the end, I have to decide if I’m going to allow my prejudice to grow stronger based on all the bad examples I’ve seen and experienced, or do my best to look for umbrella people in my life.
You can find them, too. And they are out there. I promise. Sometimes we have to search long and hard for them, because they don’t often show up in the media and they are not usually the ones seeking the attention of the masses or trying to make a name for themselves in social media.
In the meantime, I will also do my best to become an umbrella person for others. I hope in some way, my article has provided a bit of an umbrella for you, the reader. Know that you have intrinsic value beyond your skin color, your nationality, your job or your social status.