Confronting Prejudice Combats Everyday Injustice

Posted on: November 20th, 2013

Photo of Robyn Mallett

By Robyn Mallett
Department of Psychology

“That’s sexist.”

These two words are surprisingly difficult to say. Many of us can call to mind times that we have experienced or witnessed biased behavior. At times, we say or do something to challenge this injustice. But more often than not, we remain silent.[1]

Letting biased remarks or behavior slide may not seem harmful. After all, it is just one comment by one person. Perhaps it was meant as a joke. Besides, what do I say? Could I change anyone’s mind? I don’t want to be seen as too sensitive. So we avert our gaze, or shuffle uncomfortably, but ultimately let the moment pass.

The problem is that these remarks and behaviors are not isolated events. They happen every day.[2] In fact, they serve to reinforce cultural stereotypes and maintain social inequality. The use of biased language communicates knowledge about which people should be valued and respected. It also signals what constitutes acceptable behavior.[3] In this way, injustice is reinforced on a daily basis.

It is difficult for one person to change a system. Yet if many individuals take the same action in their daily lives they can change what is accepted in their social circle. Members of socially advantaged groups such as men, Whites, and heterosexuals often overhear biased remarks when surrounded by peers. Letting biased remarks slide contributes to the illusion that such remarks are acceptable and normative. Simply asking why someone said a biased remark is enough to signal disagreement and slowly change norms.

So why don’t we just say something when we see bias? One barrier to confronting discrimination is fear of social rejection.[4] There are costs to labeling a statement or behavior as biased. The person who is confronted may deny the validity of the accusation and respond with ridicule or hostility.

Another barrier to confronting discrimination is uncertainty about what to say. Is it best to label the statement as biased? Or should one ask for clarification of the remark? Perhaps a broader appeal to open-mindedness would be most effective.[5] The pressure to respond in the moment can deter even the most devoted activist.

So the next time you hear a biased remark, consider the following points based on research.

1)     Challenging discrimination can reduce biased behavior. Following confrontation, people are less likely to make stereotypic judgments and use biased language. [6]

2)     Sometimes people react harshly to being confronted. Other times, people apologize and try to repair the relationship. [7]

3)     Weigh the potential costs and benefits of confronting. Always put personal safety first. If the only personal cost is social exclusion, consider whether social support from friends and family can soothe the temporary sting of conflict. Try to identify times when you have social capital and use that as a resource to challenge discrimination.

Developing a better understanding of why and how people challenge social injustice at the interpersonal level drives my research in the Social Justice and Intergroup Relations Lab, grounds my teaching philosophy in classes such as Understanding Prejudice (PSYC 360) and Social Psychology (PSYC 275), and motivates my work with the psychology department’s Committee on Diversity Affairs.

How can you combat everyday forms of social injustice? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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