When Prejudice is Fair

Anyone born since 1950 has had it drummed into their head that prejudice is deeply wrong.  But I will maintain that most human thinking about people involves simply the application of prejudices, and much of the time, there is nothing unfair about it.

There are some things about us that we cannot reasonably be expected to change — our race or our gender, for example.  Discriminating on the basis of such things, that an individual has no control over, is clearly unfair.

But what about things the individual does have control over?

I remember when I started my sophomore year in college I was in the middle of a very deep identify crisis.  I had had a very socially unsuccessful freshman year, and was quite uncertain about what kind of person I wanted to be. I sort of wanted to be a hippie, since I’d met some hippies who were pretty nice, but I believed very strongly that the Russians posed a serious military threat to us that we should be prepared for.  I also felt that it was very, very important that people be economically productive.  And my hair looked really crappy unless I kept it short.  So I was a failure as a hippie.  And at the same time, I had grown up overseas and a lot of things about American culture were alien to me, yet I spoke with a perfect American accent, so no one was cutting me the slack normally afforded to clueless foreigners.

I didn’t fit any cultural stereotypes very well.  When people met me, it would take them a long time to figure out what I was all about, and in college everyone has so many people to meet that most people weren’t willing to invest the effort to understand who I was.

In the spring quarter, I moved to living in a dorm suite with 7 other guys.  Most of the other guys were Grateful Dead fans.  They weren’t really hippies.  They were very politically incorrect.  They didn’t wear tie-dyes and their hair wasn’t very long.  They wore flannel shirts and jeans.  Basically, they were stoners and scuzzy white boys.  And for the most part, girls wanted nothing to do with them.

I became one of them.  I dressed like them, I listened to lots and lots of the Grateful Dead, and I adopted their vocabulary.  I finally fit a stereotype.  The stereotype put me near the bottom rung of the social hierarchy of the dorm, but a rung is a rung, and it was within my reach.  People who met me now could, within a few minutes or less, size me up and get an idea of what kind of person I was, and make a decision as to whether to bother getting to know me better.  It was progress.

Eventually I got sick of the Grateful Dead and being scuzzy and left that mould for better ones, moving up the ladder.  But you have to start somewhere.

Most people deliberately conform to stereotypes, consciously or unconsciously.  By doing so they advertise themselves to the world, and others can quickly know what to expect of them.  By conforming to stereotypes with regard to unimportant, superficial matters like dress and the vocabulary one uses, people make promises to society about what sort of values they have deep down.

Most of us live in a world with many people and abundant social opportunities.  People who are looking for friends have certain qualities they are after, and make very quick assessments of other people based on very limited, superficial evidence, through the cautious application of generalizations.  And it all works.

Liberals often seem to be striving to create a world without prejudice, a world where no one applies stereotypes.  Not gonna happen.  It just wouldn’t work.


  1. Jan says:

    It’s impossible to not make any assumptions about people based on how they present themselves – their choice of attire, music, friends etc, is just that, a choice. If we made no assumptions, we could scarcely get through the day. But I’ve learned that other inferences people make based on these characteristics can be wrong. Not everyone who shares external traits that identifies them with a certain group, will have the same views on things like politics, religion, vegetarianism, how kids should be educated, to name just a few topics. I try to avoid over-generalizing about people.

  2. xyquarx says:

    Hi Jan, The main point I was trying to make is that being 100% prejudice-free is unobtainable, and we can’t function without stereotypes. We seem to be in agreement on that. I agree with you that it is possible to use stereotypes incompetently, through over or mis-appliication, as it is possible for humans to do pretty much anything ineptly.

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