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CITIZEN COLUMN: Prejudice and discrimination are NOT the same thing

CITIZEN COLUMN: Prejudice and discrimination are NOT the same thing

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The problem in racial prejudice is not discrimination but rather generalization.

Discrimination is when we see the difference between things – like green and red traffic lights. If we couldn’t make this discrimination, we would not live very long.

Generalization is when we see the similarities between things – like recognizing that all green lights mean the same thing (go), and all red lights mean the same thing (stop). If it weren’t for generalization, the task of individually learning to stop for each and every red traffic light in town would be overwhelming.

Life is full of such discrimination/generalization combinations. We discriminate between different coins, pills, foods and clothes we wear. Then we generalize over similar coins as having the same value, similar pills as having the same purpose, similar foods as having the same taste and similar clothes as covering the same body parts. For example, once we discriminate pants from shirts, we rarely (unless you are like a few older friends of mine) try to put pants over our heads.

Racial discrimination

It should not be surprising then that discrimination and generalization also apply to our interaction with people. It is virtually impossible for a human being not to discriminate (tell the difference) between two distinctly different people. For example, we can readily tell the difference between short and tall, portly and thin, light and dark hair and black and white skin.

In other words, we humans naturally discriminate, and both black and white people can’t help but tell when a person is not a member of their own race.

Racial generalization

As just described, discriminating between white and black people is unavoidable and OK. But when we GENERALIZE over all white people as being the same, and all black people as being the same, that is when we start getting into trouble with prejudice.

What we actually need is more discrimination. That is, more discrimination among people WITHIN each given race, rather than just BETWEEN races.

You see, white people interact with many other white people, and black people interact with many other black people. So, white people have many opportunities to learn that white people aren’t all the same, and black people have many opportunities to learn that black people aren’t all the same.

But the next step is for white people to interact with more black people, so that white people can learn that black people are not all the same; and for black people to interact with more white people, so that black people can learn that white people are not all the same.

The elusive solution to racial prejudice

Each race has to quit generalizing and instead seek opportunities to meet individuals outside their own race. This will allow both black and white individuals to more completely discriminate that everyone is different, no matter what their race, and that both desirable and undesirable individuals exist in all races.

The obvious venues for doing this would be the workplace, schools, churches, civic organizations, athletic settings, the arts and other recreational venues. But even within those venues, you have to voluntarily seek out those of the other races.

If you are forced to interact, as was the case with the initial attempts at school bussing, you are likely to have bad experiences with members of other races, and that will only serve to reinforce your generalization that all people of other races are bad.

To encourage voluntary interaction, the government might add incentives (e.g., better schools, tax breaks, additional funding) to encourage races to intermingle and work together. Imagine the overall thrill of a multi-racial effort to write a grant to design and build a new athletic facility funded by the government just for multi-racial teams. They would all be slapping each other on the back saying, “Look what we did together.”

The key is that we have to voluntarily interact multi-racially, achieve things together multi-racially, and the result of the interaction has to be favorable. Only then, when we are acquainted with many individuals in other races, will we quit blaming everybody in a given race when one person of that race does something unacceptable.

An example

Will White has never personally known a black person. The only thing he knows about black people are the occasional crimes that he sees on the evening news. He is aware that white people commit crimes, too, but he knows many other law-abiding white people, so he considers white criminals to be an anomaly. On the other hand, he does not know any black people and thus has no basis for thinking anything other than all black people must be like the few bad guys he sees on TV. That is, he generalizes unfavorably over all black people whom he does not know.

However, one day at work Will meets Bill Black, a coworker who seems like everybody else on the job. They have to work on projects together and have mutually succeeded in changing some office procedures that won high praise from their superiors.

Will White actually gets to know Bill Black and thinks he is a nice, talented fellow, very similar to himself in many ways. This causes Will some consternation: If all black people are bad, then how can Bill be a nice, normal guy? Could it be that all black people are not the same?

Will starts to meet other black people on the job, and he likes most of them while not being so fond of some others, just like the breakdown of white people he knows on the job. Will is starting to find out that individuals are all different, no matter if they are black or white. His prejudice is starting to be broken.

Will now finds himself curious about black people he encounters in other aspects of his life, like the new couple he saw last week at church. In fact, after church he sought them out and said that he wanted to welcome them and find out more about where they came from and how they ended up moving here. Will White is now branching out and doing what every person of every race needs to do, if racial prejudice is going to be overcome.

Dr. Tom Dorsel is a professor emeritus at FMU, currently living on Hilton Head Island. Visit him on Facebook or at This column is based on a previous journal article the author published: Dorsel, Thomas N. “A New Look at Racial Prejudice,” Psychology in the Schools, 1977, Vol. 14, 188-190.

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