The suffering created by prejudice and discrimination is difficult to quantify. Prejudice led to the Holocaust, to slavery, and to the Trail of Tears. It plays a role in employment discrimination, rape and sexual assault, and many forms of abuse.
People who hold prejudices about others may engage in abuse and discrimination that plays a role in systematic oppression. Their prejudgments of others may also undermine their ability to listen, to have relationships with those unlike themselves, and to learn from others.
People victimized by prejudice may suffer immensely. Prejudice makes people more vulnerable to forms of discrimination such as sexual abuse and unequal pay. It can also undermine physical and mental health.
It’s possible to be both a perpetrator and a victim of prejudice. A white woman, for example, may face sexism every day, but fail to notice the racism her black female coworker faces. Understanding these intersecting oppressions offers a path to greater understanding and more meaningful relationships. Greater understanding can inspire people to change the world for the better.
Therapy can support people to overcome prejudice. A therapist can help a client understand how prejudice affects their life, develop coping skills for managing prejudice, and confront prejudice when necessary. Therapy can also help people overcome their own prejudices so they can nurture deeper, more diverse connections. Find a culturally competent therapist to help with prejudice.
Exposure to prejudice and discrimination is a major risk factor for poor mental health. A 2008 study found that race-related stress in African-Americans was a more significant mental health risk factor than stressful life events or psychological distress. Research on other marginalized groups supports the link between exposure to prejudice and mental health difficulties.
Every person is unique, and the effects of prejudice on mental health vary across culture, socioeconomic status, and other social locations. Some common effects include:
- Depression and anxiety.
- Impostor syndrome, the belief that someone is not as capable as their peers.
- Stereotype threat, the tendency of exposure to negative stereotypes to activate those stereotypes. For instance, a girl who is exposed to negative stereotypes about female math performance may begin struggling in math class.
- Self-doubt. Prejudice is often subtle. Victims of prejudice may question their perceptions of prejudice; perpetrators may encourage this self-doubt.
- Loss of opportunities. Prejudice that leads to discrimination deprives victims of opportunities, and subjects them to more challenges than their peers. For instance, a black person at an elite school may have to work harder than a white peer to be taken seriously. Upon graduating, they may be paid less for the same work.
Though prejudice is sometimes used interchangeably with racism, sexism, and other terms for oppressive behavior, prejudice is not the same as racism or any other form of discrimination.
Most sociologists define racism as prejudice with power. For example, a white person who believes that black people are inferior occupies a place of relative power compared to black people. This is because black people have been systematically disenfranchised and abused for centuries. White people have not.
A white person who has specific power relative to a black person—such as a hiring manager, a teacher, or a judge—can use the prejudice and power of racism in particularly harmful ways. The more power a person has relative to another person, the more likely their prejudice is to lead to discrimination.
Anyone can be prejudiced, and any prejudice can be harmful. But only people with relative power can behave in racist or other discriminatory ways. A black man’s prejudgment that his white neighbor will be unkind can undermine any potential relationship the two have. This harms them both. It is not, however, racist because the black person is not exposing the white person to systemic oppression.
Prejudice is an attitude, not an action. It literally means to prejudge—to make a judgment without sufficient evidence, or in spite of evidence to the contrary. But like most other attitudes, prejudice tends to affect people’s actions. When people work to overcome prejudice, they usually attempt to change both their actions and attitudes.
Prejudice can manifest as seemingly harmless stereotypes, such as the belief that all boys like rough play and sports. Even these stereotypes can play into larger cultural messages that harm marginalized groups.
Prejudgments about race have long been used to support oppressive policies. For instance, Adolf Hitler used stereotypes about Jewish greed to stoke anti-Jewish sentiment, and eventually to justify killing Jews. The belief that girls aren’t good at math, or that gender necessarily reveals something about spatial reasoning, has been used to exclude girls from STEM classes and projects, or to explain why men in STEM earn more money than women.
Dealing with prejudice as a perpetrator
People who can recognize their own prejudicial attitudes are better able to combat those attitudes. However, confronting one’s own prejudice can be difficult. Sociologist Robin DiAngelo argues that white people have been socialized into “white fragility.” This fragility includes the tendency to become angry and excessively sensitive in response to evidence of one’s own racism. A similar phenomenon may be at play with other forms of prejudice.
Only by recognizing prejudice—not insisting that one harbors no prejudice—can a person truly move beyond prejudicial attitudes and the hurtful actions they inspire. Therapy can help people to understand and recognize these attitudes.
Diversity is also a powerful antidote to prejudice. People tend to choose friends who are similar to them. By seeking relationships across difference, people begin to push back against stereotypes. A white person who is friends with many black people, for instance, is less likely to harbor stereotypes or to view black people as a monolith.
Empathy is key to overcoming prejudice. People who can empathize with others’ feelings are better equipped to let go of their own prejudice. For some people, their own experience with prejudice can foster empathy. A black man, for instance, might use his own experience with fear and oppression as a way to empathize with a white woman’s fear of sexual abuse or experience of gender-related oppression.
Dealing with prejudice as a victim
Prejudice is the responsibility of those who harbor it. To suggest that a victim of prejudice has a responsibility to change the mind of a prejudiced person is victim-blaming. Little research supports the idea that any specific strategy enacted by victims can get perpetrators to change their minds.
Instead, people who are victims of prejudice should focus on self-care and healthy coping skills. Some strategies that may help include:
- Build a strong network of supportive, caring people. Friends and family who believe a person about their experiences can make it easier to cope with prejudice.
- Develop a strong cultural identity. Research has found that people who develop strong positive associations with their culture, race, or gender are better equipped to manage the stress of prejudice and discrimination.
- Identify, combat, and reframe negative thoughts. Discrimination and prejudice can be internalized. A woman exposed to constant pressure to look a certain way may begin to believe that her primary source of worth is her appearance. Identifying and tackling these thoughts, often with the help of a therapist, can help restore a healthy sense of self-worth.
- Push back against prejudice when possible and practical. Complaining about a racist teacher, documenting wage gaps, and reporting sexual harassment may help restore a sense of agency and offer greater access to equitable treatment.
- Take a break from triggering media and people. Following a high-profile sexual assault case, a woman who was raped might feel triggered and anxious. Taking a break from social media and spending time around people who are sensitive to the effects of sexual assault may help restore a sense of balance.
Therapy can help people with prejudicial attitudes overcome those attitudes and work toward lasting social change. The right therapist can also help people exposed to prejudice regain a sense of self-worth and push back against discriminatory or prejudicial treatment. A therapist working on issues of prejudice and discrimination must continually work to be mindful of their own social location, how their experiences affect their views of prejudice, and the effects of their own prejudice on their behavior.
Culturally sensitive therapy is critical for effectively overcoming prejudice. A therapist must understand the devastating impacts of prejudice whether they are treating a victim or perpetrator. When working with a victim of prejudice, a therapist must be sensitive to issues of identity. This is doubly true when the therapist does not face the same prejudice as the client, such as when a white male therapist counsels a black non-binary client.
The right therapeutic approach depends on the goals a client sets. For instance, a person who struggles with depression due to racism may benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). A person who has experienced abuse due to sexism may benefit from trauma-informed approaches such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). If a person is ready to push back against perpetrators of discrimination and prejudice, assertiveness skills training may help.
Prejudice can have devastating effects on families. In romantic relationships, imbalances of social power—such as between a man and woman or black person and white person—can also affect the relationship. A white spouse might not know how to be sensitive to their black spouse’s experiences of prejudice. A man might not be aware of how his unconscious prejudice affects his relationship with his female partner.
Family and couples counseling can help families identify and understand the role of prejudice in their relationships. The right therapist can help families push back on prejudice together. With help, the family can become a place of refuge from the prejudice and discrimination a person experiences.
- 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 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 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 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. 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 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 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 he is experiencing. Dr. Benois helps Hassan explore and process his feelings in a healthy way, and together they explore ways 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 viewed those she considers plain or unattractive as inferior and that she has always thought that heavyset people should lose weight. Leah admits 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 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 coworkers. With the therapist, Leah addresses the potential reasons behind some of her beliefs and explores ways she can develop a more open mind and informed way of thinking. She also discusses ways she might apologize for any offense she might have given.
Therapy can change lives and improve families. In so doing, it can steadily erode societal prejudices and serve as a powerful force working to combat discrimination and injustice. Finding a therapist who understands and can relate to a client’s experiences and needs is key.
- 10.3 prejudice. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://open.lib.umn.edu/sociology/chapter/10-3-prejudice/
- Coping with race-related stress. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.brown.edu/campus-life/support/counseling-and-psychological-services/index.php?q=coping-race-related-stress
- Sparkman, D. J., Eidelman, S., & Blanchar, J. C. (2016). Multicultural experiences reduce prejudice through personality shifts in openness to experience. European Journal of Social Psychology, 46(7), 840-853. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1002/ejsp.2189
- Stereotype threat widens achievement gap. (2006, July 15). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/research/action/stereotype.aspx
- Stevens-Watkins, D., Perry, B., Pullen, E., Jewell, J., & Oser, C. B. (2014). Examining the associations of racism, sexism, and stressful life events on psychological distress among African-American women. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 20(4), 561-569. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4197405/
- Utsey, S. O., Giesbrecht, N., Hook, J., & Stanard, P. M. (2008). Cultural, sociofamilial, and psychological resources that inhibit psychological distress in African Americans exposed to stressful life events and race-related stress. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 55(1), 49-62. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/buy/2007-19995-004