Prejudice has been defined as a preformed adverse judgment or opinion that is not grounded in knowledge, or an irrational suspicion or hatred of a particular group, race, or religion. In legal terms, prejudice has been defined as an irrational hostile attitude directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics. Prejudicial behavior is responsible for a significant amount of anguish, psychological and emotional pain, and abuse of the target in cross-cultural and intergroup encounters. Examples of prejudicial behaviors include everyday life events of racism, sexism, and classism that can heighten subjective experiences of stress. Similarly, stresses experienced by women; inter-sexual, gay, lesbian, and transgendered people; religious minorities; and Arabs, Muslims, and Pakistanis (considered “villains” by some after September 11, 2001) may have their origins in personal and social prejudices.
Prejudices are defended strongly, as early cultural socialization experiences mold beliefs about people across ways of life. Prejudices can be embedded in worldviews (e.g., beliefs, values, and assumptions) and are integrated in individuals’ expectations of others. Given the different definitions of prejudice, most theorists agree that it involves some kind of a negative assessment or evaluation of the “other.”
Theorists have stated that prejudices are attitudes that involve negative feelings such as loathing, hatred, or contempt. Discrimination, on the other hand, refers to behaviors, often motivated by prejudices, wherein people are treated differently (e.g., negatively), based on group membership (e.g., culture, religion, gender, complexion, ethnicity, sexual orientation). Prejudice degrades the human experience and can motivate people to behave in destructive ways.
Prejudiced beliefs are often related to stereotypes. Stereotyping involves the inaccurate categorizing of people. Stereotyping ascribes negative characteristics to people on the basis of their group membership or other visible characteristics. Some theorists consider stereotypes pictures that people carry about others which are usually flawed and lead to assumptions. Prejudice, discrimination, and stereotyping are interrelated and tend to feed on each other. Such attitudes and behaviors may affect the self-actualization of stigmatized people negatively and result in significant human suffering. Counseling psychologists have argued that bearing prejudices has deleterious consequences. At a minimum, prejudice and discrimination can contribute to identity crises for the target populations and members of distinct cultural groups as they struggle with negative evaluations and projections.
All cultural groups display prejudice toward others, regardless of their status (i.e., dominant or non-dominant group membership). People born and raised in racist, sexist, ageist, heterosexist, and otherwise oppressive systems tend to operate from internalized beliefs that are informed by these hierarchies. Though processes involving “unlearning” the socialization reinforce prejudices, individuals may begin to address how holding on to prejudices influences their appraisals of themselves and others. Moreover, being the target of prejudices may become a significant part of cultural socialization experiences, thus shaping how individuals respond toward members of other groups. When individuals are confronted with something or someone different from themselves, they may view the new object negatively if they themselves have been targets of prejudice and discrimination.
Why Does Prejudice Occur?
Early theorists constructed prejudice as a survival response to the extent that categorical thinking served to identify enemies and threatening situations. Knowing and recognizing members of one’s ingroup (e.g., family, clan, community) was imperative if one was to survive; outgroup members often fought for ownership and access to vital resources, including land, wealth, and power. Although recent literature has attended to emotional, social, economic, and historic dimensions of prejudice, psychologists also have proposed that prejudice is partly a result of normal human functioning.
Categorical thinking intrinsic to prejudice is employed when people distinguish ingroup from out-group members, and it informs the perception of greater similarity within a group and dissimilarity between groups than actually exists. In other words, individuals may perceive members of their own groups as more similar to them than they are in reality, and outgroup members are perceived to be more homogenous, such that they also are seen as inter-changeable and expendable. Biases toward others are strengthened not out of hatred toward others but rather from positive perceptions of, and favoritism for, the ingroup (i.e., ingroup bias). Diverse races and cultures have ingroup biases; further, positive cultural identity development factors include positive emotions and self-appraisal as a member of a given cultural group.
According to social dominance theory, people feel more positively about themselves when they denigrate others. This creates a false sense of superiority, although it may have no basis in reality. It is further noted that the mechanism fueling prejudicial behavior is a desire to disparage others to ensure the perception of superiority and goodness. It has been suggested that prejudice and discrimination serve to maintain institutional oppression and affirm a sense of superiority among dominant groups across social locations (e.g., race, gender, and class). For example, it can be argued that within the present social structure, White males who are identified as middle and/or upper class (i.e., owning class) may hold prejudices that serve to maintain their status as dominant. Several studies have linked social dominance to anti-Black and anti-Arab prejudice, sexism, nationalism, opposition to gay rights, and other attitudes concerning social hierarchies.
Psychology started focusing on prejudice in the 1920s, when the emphasis was on American and European race theories that were developed to support the belief that Whites were the superior race. The emphasis started to shift in the 1930s and 1940s with progress in civil rights, challenges to colonialism, and a growing concern about antisemitism. Following the Holocaust, theories concerning personality variables that created a predisposition to prejudice became a focus of study. The most influential proposition was that underlying prejudicial behavior was an authoritarian personality.
The authoritarian personality was described as cognitively rigid and dichotomous, deferential to authority, and strictly adherent to social rules and hierarchies. Within this personality style, prejudices were thought to maintain categories and rules that were defended. Although this hypothesis had been met with criticism for lacking empirical support, later research supported the claims that related authoritarianism to political conservatism, hierarchical worldviews and endorsement of social dominance orientations, and categorical thinking.
The original expressions of prejudices tended to be blatant, open, and direct, indicating a person’s attitude and behavior in one simultaneous act (e.g., lynching, restriction of voting rights). Given the protests of stigmatized people and the changes in laws and understanding of the oppression caused by such prejudices, racism, sexism, classism, and all other types of prejudice have been moved into a new domain called modern and aversive racism, sexism, and classism. Recent changes in legal and social norms have curtailed overt discrimination, but they also have fueled the emergence of more subtle forms of oppressions. For example, modern racism is characterized by the acknowledgment that racism exists alongside denial and attempts to address and resolve persistent inequities in today’s society, under the claim that specific racial and cultural groups make unfair demands. Similarly, an example of modern sexism is endorsing the statement that it is not acceptable to consider women unintelligent compared with men while not endorsing measures to equal employment and wage disparities that women face. In effect, prejudices are said to evidence more subtly in current society.
As mentioned, prejudice can be considered a maladaptive response to the anxieties people face or self-generate in response to human differences. It is maintained that this anxiety is exacerbated by the central existential problem of how one should live, what kind of person one should be, and whether that way of being has value. People living with condemnation of their skin color, gender, age, disability, sexual identity and orientation, or all of these, struggle with negative prejudicial behavior and stereotypes imposed upon them. This leaves the work of addressing the identity crisis of stigmatized individuals to psychologists, counselors, and therapists.
Recent research has psychological distress among the target populations, especially as it relates to prejudice, discrimination, and social stigma research. Additional research has documented the influence of experiencing prejudice and discrimination on psychological distress as well as the influence of mediating and moderating factors that can influence the extent to which individuals experience anxiety or stress related to prejudice (e.g., self-esteem). Empirical evidence has been found that people who endorse worldviews that teach tolerance and respect for diversity are resilient to defensive manifestations of intolerance; further, people who endorse such worldviews may actually become more tolerant under ambiguous, anxiety-provoking situations.
Counselors and mental health professionals are encouraged to recognize how their own prejudices may influence counseling processes. Psychologists have asserted that all human encounters are cross-cultural encounters on the basis of differences in gender, race, culture, ethnicity, age, sexual identity and orientation, religion, class, religion, and disability and other social positionalities. As a function of being socialized in hierarchies wherein social groups are ascribed power and members of groups are assumed to be deficient based on differences, counselors are likely to carry prejudices that can influence their assessment treatment of diverse clients. Moreover, given the power of the counseling role, such ascription of prejudices to clients may have implications beyond the scope of the consultation room. For example, some counseling psychologists have argued that foundational theories of psychological normality and abnormality were based in Eurocentric worldviews that reflected favoritism for that ingroup and perceived outgroups (e.g., people of color) and their cultures as deficient. Prejudices may evidence to the degree that values and experiences characteristic of a specified group of people may not be valued or legitimated within Eurocentric or androcentric theories of psychology.
In addition, counselors and mental health professionals may be invested in their prejudices such that they manifest defenses in their work with culturally diverse clients. Counseling psychology literature has presented several defense mechanisms that are believed to emerge in cross-cultural and cross-racial counseling, specifically when the counselor is White and the client is a visible racial/ethnic group member; these defense mechanisms include color-blind racial attitudes, color consciousness, cultural transference and counter-transference, cultural ambivalence, and pseudo-transference. Color-blindness is a lack of consideration of race, whereas color-consciousness overemphasizes the sociopolitical construct of race. Cultural transference and counter-transference refer to the exchange of racial and cultural projections between counselors and clients, as informed by each party’s personal experiences with members of the other parties’ racial-cultural group. Cultural ambivalence refers to counselors’ preoccupation with their own issues as they confront race, including White guilt for historical atrocities and focusing on their personal racial privileges rather than the clients’ experiences. Pseudo-transference refers to the refusal to take responsibility for one’s prejudices and discrimination, such that clients are blamed for breakdowns in the relationship. Defense mechanisms identified for counselors of color are overidentification with clients’ perceived issues and identification with the oppressor in their role as counselor. Across these counselor-specific defenses, counselors’ prejudices may be operative to the extent that counselors may struggle to acknowledge their own biases or the realities of oppression (i.e., color-blindness), project racial assumptions on to their clients (i.e., counter-transference), or disown their roles in racial dynamics in the dyad (e.g., pseudo-transference or identifying with the oppressor).
Addressing Prejudices in Counselor Training
Several techniques and educational strategies are now being employed to educate counselors and psychologists to reduce the learned prejudices and biases that are a result of growing up in a racist, sexist, and classist society. Cross-cultural or multicultural counseling techniques and strategies are a part of curricula in nearly all counseling training programs; further, the existence of competencies and guidelines by the major counseling and psychology associations have encouraged increased sensitivity, awareness, knowledge, and skills in both educators and counselors. It is recommended that education and training focus on teaching the ability to navigate among foundational theories of counseling (e.g., psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral) to inform culturally relevant treatment approaches for clients. In addition, it is encouraged for counselors and mental health professionals to move away from deficit models to recognizing clients’ strengths based on biculturality, multiculturality, or both. To the extent that counselors’ endorsement of cultural identity attitudes has been related empirically to multicultural counseling competence, training programs may employ measures of racial identity attitudes, acculturation, gender identity attitudes, and world-view in evaluating the efficacy of multicultural counseling training curricula.
It is recommended that counselors and counseling trainees examine the extent to which they have internalized a Western bias toward compartmentalizing cultural variables that are embedded in counseling theories. Namely, counseling theories tend to examine gender, race, sexual orientation, and class separately, rather than the interplay among them. Thus, the lives of people with multiple stigmatized identities are compartmentalized into fragmented cultural categories that do not mirror real life. Consequently, Eurocentric and multicultural perspectives share a limitation in that the complex manner in which multiple stigmas operate in the lives of individuals is largely unexamined. More specifically, the degree to which counselors may hold prejudices related to multiple cultural identities (e.g., stereotypes related to women of color or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered people of color) may go un-approached without addressing the realities of the intersections of social locations.
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