The History We Inhaled

Art by Alyssa Guzman
Racial justice is the path to racial progress. Follow us on twitter @GetRaceRight

I was talking with an advisee a few years ago about whether she wanted to major in English or biology. Suddenly, she interrupted me mid-sentence in a flat, almost distracted voice: “My mother always told me you can’t trust White people.”  “Oh,” I said.  “Do you want to talk about that?”

We’ve all been stereotyped at some time or another.  For some of us, like me, it happens now and again, with little or no effect on our overall life circumstances.  For others, it’s part of everyday life, and the impact is significant.


Three quick definitions:

  • Stereotypes are cognitive—how we think about someone because of the group to which they belong.
  • Prejudice is emotional—how we feel about someone because of the group to which they belong.
  • Discrimination is behavior—how treat someone because of the group to which they belong.

Stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination sometimes work hand in hand.  I don’t like you, I think you’re a bad person, and I treat you in hateful ways as a result.

BUT:  It’s very important to know that many times they operate independently of each other.  I may have absorbed stereotypes of people like you even if I don’t necessarily have prejudiced feelings toward you.  Even if I do have negative beliefs and feelings, I may not discriminate because of legal or social pressures not to do so.  Or I may discriminate even without any negative thoughts or feelings by participating in a larger group that excludes you in some way.

The Black History Month Story tells us that there are some nasty bigots out there wearing sheets, and they’re the ones who stereotype, the ones who are prejudiced, the ones who discriminate.  But the history we all inherited is the history we all inhaled.  Denying our stereotypes, or simply failing to recognize them, gives them power over the ways we think and feel and act.  Confronting our stereotypes, and learning to overcome them, gives us the power to keep them in check and to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.

The Bottom Line:  The history we inherited is also the history we have inhaled.  We have absorbed it in ways we usually don’t even recognize, giving it power to shape our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, whether we want it to or not.

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