Is Prejudice always Conscious (or Can It Be Unintentional)?

When it comes to the issue of prejudice (racial, sex-related, immigrant-related, religious, cultural, etc.) I find there are two kinds of people. First, there are those who think that it must be conscious and deliberate in order to count as prejudice. Second, there are those who think it is often unconscious–found in and among people who deny, even to themselves, that they are prejudiced against a group of fellow human beings.

Let’s set aside the word “discrimination” in this conversation. Without a qualifier it says nothing negative. “Discrimination” is, in and of itself, a good thing. It simply means making distinctions, distinguishing between one thing and something else–especially when they seem alike. For example, it’s good to learn to discriminate between the innocent and the guilty. That’s what a jury must do. Discrimination is only negative when it is tied to prejudice–conscious or unconscious bias against a group of people based on wrong criteria. For example, potential jurors who discriminate between guilty and innocent defendants based even partly on their race are rightly said to be prejudiced in their discrimination. Yet we have come to use “discrimination,” even without any qualifying adjective, with “prejudice.” For example, one hears people say that it’s illegal to discriminate in hiring. No, it’s not. What’s illegal is discrimination based on racial (and other) prejudice.

So what exactly is “prejudice?” Literally it means to “pre-judge” someone or some group based solely on criteria he/she/they cannot help and to treat them (or incline toward treating them) as inferior because of that. In other words, it is treating them (even if only in one’s thoughts) as incapable or inferior solely because of their belonging to a group without regard to their own value, worth or capabilities.

I find that most people still think prejudice must be conscious and deliberate to be prejudice.

But let me give an example of how prejudice can be completely unconscious even to the prejudiced person.

I overheard a conversation between a highly educated pastor who I know would vehemently deny any racial or ethnic prejudice and who I am convinced would be sincere in that denial. In other words, I know him well enough to know he is totally innocent of any conscious racial or ethnic bias. Yet, here is what he said to me and a group of others over lunch one day (paraphrasing):

“I used to pastor ‘First Church’ in a mid-sized Southwestern city. That had its problems, of course. For example, when I went to the grocery store half of the people there were members of my congregation. … Actually, it was more than that because half the people in the store were Hispanic.”

Examine the comment carefully. Ethnic prejudice is implied there even though the pastor was and is totally unaware of it.

I once had a Hispanic student teaching assistant in a college where Hispanic students were very rare. Many people refused even to attempt to pronounce his name correctly even though it was not difficult. Many students simply referred to him as “Taco” and asked him how life was at the “car wash.” (He didn’t work at a car wash.) I am certain that if a person asked them whether they were prejudiced they would say no.

Another time I was with a group of very fine people, Christians all (not that only Christians can be “fine people”) one of who commented that a related child adopted from Africa is not “African-American.” The child’s mother pointed out that the child is now a U.S. citizen and therefore African-American. The person responded “Well, I don’t like to think of her that way.” I am absolutely certain that the woman is totally unaware of any racial prejudice and would vehemently deny it. And yet her reluctance to recognize a relative as “African-American” (because she is adorable, loved, smart, part of the family?) betrays a hidden (even to herself) prejudice against African-American.

Yet another time I was at a church, waiting in line to pay for my wife’s and my meal at the Wednesday evening community dinner before the Bible study. The man directly in front of me jokingly tried to pay less than the full amount expected. The man (a church member) taking the money said jokingly “What are you, a Jew?” I am sure the money-taker would strongly deny being anti-Semitic and be sincere in his denial.

Prejudice is simply judging people’s worth, value, capability, potential, based on wrong criteria–especially because they are “other.” I have seen it more often where it is unconscious than conscious. We all probably have some unconscious prejudices and are simply in denial about it.

A part of Christian discipleship ought to be to rid ourselves, with God’s help and others’ help, of prejudices. But that rarely happens without some level of confrontation. Most of the time, we need to be awakened to our hidden prejudices by being with people who are other than ourselves and against whom we hold unjust biases. One task of churches ought to be to confront ourselves and repent of our prejudices.

A counter example to the ones above may be helpful. Some years ago the Pentecostal Fellowship of North America, a cooperative organization of dozens of Pentecostal denominations, realized that, not only were no African-American denominations members, but the absence of African-American Pentecostal denominations was rooted in racial prejudice. The founders of the PFNA had intentionally excluded denominations such as the Church of God in Christ. The PFNA leaders came together to discuss what to do. They recognized that the organization itself was infected with the founders’ prejudice and decided to disband it. They asked the leaders of the Church of God in Christ and other African-American Pentecostal denominations to organize a new cooperative Pentecostal “umbrella” organization and invite them, the white Pentecostals, to join if they wished to. This was called the “Memphis Miracle.” The new organization has a new name and is multi-racial.

The point is that the leaders of the PFNA (my uncle was one of them) came to recognize that their organization could not now (then) simply invite the excluded African-American denominations to join it because it was rooted in wrong racial discrimination based on prejudice. They did the only right thing. They dissolved the organization and started over with African-American leadership. The latter graciously invited the white Pentecostals to join the new organization. It was a wonderful example of racial reconciliation.

The point is that even organizations can be racist. I’m not saying every organization with a racist past must disband, but all ought to publicly repent and work hard toward overcoming that racist past.



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