Prejudice / Discrimination

Prejudice, a prejudgment or assumption made about someone without the adequate knowledge to do so with guaranteed accuracy, can negatively impact emotional well-being and one's sense of self. Discrimination, or actions or behaviors taken against individuals as a result of prejudiced beliefs, can create feelings of shame, anger, and sadness in victims.

Prejudice and discrimination may have far-reaching effects. People who believe that they are being judged negatively or who are treated as inferior may have difficulty performing to the best of their ability, especially if they experience prejudice or discrimination on an ongoing basis due to an intrinsic characteristic of who they are as a person. The discriminatory actions of others may also lead those affected by these assumptions and behaviors to develop physical or mental health problems as a result. The support of a mental health professional may be helpful when this is the case.

Understanding Prejudice

Prejudice often stems from stereotypes, or widely held beliefs about specific groups of people. These beliefs are typically oversimplified and tend to foster prejudice and discrimination. The term prejudice is most commonly used in reference to a preconceived judgment of someone due to their social class, gender, race, ethnicity, disability, age, religion, sexual orientation, or other personal traits.

Examples of prejudice:

  • A person believes all Hispanic people are lazy but has never worked or spent time with any Hispanic people.
  • A person considers all people who believe in the Mormon faith to be unintelligent, even though they do not know anything about Mormonism.

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  • A person thinks less of someone because that person "looks poor."

While prejudice is likely to have a negative impact for the victims of these stereotypes, prejudiced belief systems can also often negatively impact society as a whole. When a majority of people in a community subscribe to prejudiced or untrue beliefs about a particular group of people, that group of people may experience a decrease in freedoms, rights, or fair treatment. Individuals who hold prejudiced beliefs also often limit themselves, on basis of their beliefs, from new experiences that could foster growth.

Understanding Discrimination

Discrimination is a sociological term referring to treatment taken toward or against an individual of a certain group. In other words, discrimination is an actual behavior. Systemic discrimination involves a pattern of policies or practices within an organization which create disadvantages for the affected person or group. Discrimination can negatively impact society by leading to oppressive systems in which certain groups are treated unfairly and disempowered, practices that can result in aggression and other problems that affect the community as a whole.

Examples of discrimination include excluding women from male-dominated careers and using age discrimination in hiring practices. Some discrimination, such as extending rights and benefits only to certain groups, is blatant, while other forms are more subtle. The experience of subtle discrimination may include being ignored, ridiculed, or treated differently. For example, a clerk in a clothing store who allows white customers to roam the store freely without suspicion but follows black customers around the store to make sure that they do not steal anything would be committing subtle discrimination.

Certain types of discrimination, such as discrimination in the workplace, are illegal. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits an employer from discriminating based on race, religion, sex, and nationality. Following this act, an employer is not allowed to pay a woman less than a man on the basis of her sex alone.

Prejudice and Discrimination in History

Many minority groups have been the victims of both discrimination and prejudice in the United States.

Women were not given the right to vote until 1920, when the 19th Constitutional Amendment was ratified.  Racial discrimination is one example of discrimination that has been prevalent in the U.S., perhaps most notably with the institution of slavery. Despite the eradication of slavery in 1865, racial segregation was legal until the Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka (1954).

The LGBT community is another group that has faced frequent prejudice and discrimination. Same-sex marriage was first recognized nationally in 2015, with the Supreme Court decision in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), and although some states are enacting legislation to prevent discrimination on basis of sexual orientation, prejudice is still widespread in many areas. Many transgender people face, on a daily basis, hate, violence, and discrimination as a result of their identities, and only a few states have protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression. Transgender individuals also frequently lack access to health care and other basic necessities, and LGBT youth are disproportionately homeless, often as a result of prejudice and discrimination that forces them to leave home.

Therapy for Prejudice and Discrimination

Psychotherapy may be helpful in treating the negative mental effects of discrimination and prejudice. Depression, sadness, and anxiety are associated emotions that can often be treated in therapy. Victims of discrimination can feel supported and validated in therapy, and they can learn coping skills to manage the harmful effects of prejudice and discrimination. Additionally, therapy can increase assertiveness skills, helping victims to feel more empowered.  

It may also be beneficial for someone who has prejudged or discriminated against another to explore their beliefs in therapy. As part of therapy, a person may learn how to overcome stigmas or stereotypes that lead to prejudice and discrimination, explore ways to ask for forgiveness or make restitution, and become able to create new, unbiased relationships with oneself and others. The origins of prejudiced beliefs can be explored, and the person in therapy may often be able learn how to incorporate more realistic and flexible beliefs.

Prejudice and Discrimination in Therapy

Many people hold certain biases and beliefs about groups of people, and therapists may number among them. Prejudice can be of significant detriment to a therapeutic relationship if the person seeking treatment feels negatively judged or unfairly treated. To prevent negative effects of prejudice and discrimination, therapists are generally trained to examine their own biases so as not to let them negatively affect their work. Additionally, therapists are held to ethical standards in place to prevent discrimination and unfair treatment.  The ethics code that guides the practice of psychologists, for example, prohibits unfair discrimination based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, culture, or other personal factors.

All people seeking therapeutic treatment should feel free to discuss concerns about prejudice and discrimination with a therapist. It is acceptable to ask about a therapist’s knowledge and experience in working with specific cultural groups. Some people in treatment find it helpful to work with a therapist from their own racial or ethnic background or to seek out a therapist who has a particular expertise working with a specific group or issue. There are likely to be cultural differences between the therapist and the person being treated, but if a person does not feel understood, valued, or fairly treated by a therapist, the therapeutic relationship is unlikely to succeed.

Case Examples

  • Hostile prejudice in the office: Jorge, 34, enters therapy after becoming increasingly uncomfortable at his office. His coworkers have begun to make frequent negative comments about his background, and he has been subject to many offensive jokes about the Mexican culture. He tells his therapist that this hostility frequently undermines his work and that although he likes his job, he thinks that quitting may be the only solution. After exploring possible steps and solutions with the therapist, he decides to politely confront any coworkers who make an offensive remark and help them understand how their comments are ignorant and hurtful. With his therapist's encouragement, he also decides to make his boss aware of the situation, a step he was previously too nervous to take. Jorge's boss is understanding and quickly schedules a diversity training and begins to take other steps to ensure a more comfortable office environment for all individuals. Through these actions, Jorge is able to feel more confident about who he is, and his performance at work improves as a result of his increased confidence and comfort in the work environment.
  • Community isolation as a result of cultural differences and prejudice: Hassan, 29, enters therapy in order to discuss the difficulties he experiences as a result of living in a primarily white neighborhood. He often feels excluded from his neighborhood activities, which he attributes to cultural differences and possible prejudice, as he is a Muslim of Arabic descent. Hassan is unable to find a therapist in the area from his own ethnic background, so he starts attending sessions with Dr. Benois, a white female. Hassan initially has some concerns about whether Dr. Benois will be able to understand his problems, but he decides to meet with her anyway. Fortunately, Dr. Benois has been trained to address cultural differences, and in their first session she openly addresses the differences between herself and Hassan and provides information about her relevant training. She encourages Hassan to discuss any concerns that he has, which puts Hassan at ease and helps him to open up quickly. He feels understood and validated and, over the course of therapy, is able to openly discuss his feelings about the prejudice that he is experiencing. Dr. Benois helps Hassan explore and process his feelings in a healthy way, and together they explore ways that he might connect with others in his community.
  • Diversity training leads woman to examine her own prejudices: Leah, 31, chooses to meet with a therapist following the conclusion of a workplace diversity seminar. In the seminar, she tells the therapist, she realized that many of the attitudes and beliefs she holds about those unlike herself are negative. She reports that since high school, she has always viewed those she considers plain or unattractive as inferior and that she has always thought that heavyset people should lose weight. Leah admits that she has made negative or stigmatizing comments to some female coworkers that she considers to be overweight and that she also has made ignorant comments regarding the sexual orientation of a coworker. No one has ever called Leah out on her behavior in the workplace, but she tells the therapist that she feels that she may have been hurtful to some of her coworkers. With the therapist, Leah addresses the potential reasons behind some of her beliefs and explores ways that she can develop a more open mind and informed way of thinking. She also discusses ways that she might apologize for any offense she might have given.

References

  1. Anti-LGBT Discrimination. (2014). Retrieved from https://www.glad.org/rights/topics/c/anti-lgbt-discrimination
  2. Couillard, L. (2013). The impact of prejudice on society. The Daily Collegian. Retrieved from http://www.collegian.psu.edu/news/crime_courts/article_a86ea0dc-270a-11e3-ad90-0019bb30f31a.html
  3. Federal laws prohibiting job discrimination questions and answers. (n.d.). The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Retrieved from http://www.eeoc.gov/facts/qanda.html
  4. Fisher, C.B. (2003). Decoding the ethics code: A practical guide for psychologists. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  5. Inzlicht, M. & Kang, S.K. (2010). Stereotype threat spillover: How coping with threats to social identity affects aggression, eating, decision making, and attention. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(3), 467-481
  6. Miller, H. (2015, July 15). The New York Times Shares Examples of Discrimination Facing LGBT Community. Retrieved from http://www.hrc.org/blog/entry/the-new-york-times-shares-examples-of-discrimination-facing-lgbt-community
  7. Plous, S. (n.d.). Subtle Forms of Prejudice. Retrieved from http://www.understandingprejudice.org/apa/english/page10.htm
  8. Systemic discrimination law & legal definition. (n.d.). USLegal.com. Retrieved from http://definitions.uslegal.com/s/systemic-discrimination

 

Last updated: 07-15-2015

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