Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Prejudice vs. Kindness

I imagine that if you find yourself reading this post you consider yourself to firmly fit in the "not prejudiced" category.

Of course you do!

It's not called The Jerk Project, after all.  :0)

But what if prejudice in real life is not always about being overtly jerky (or racist, sexist, or another offensive --ist) ... but instead about choosing to be not as kind to some people as to others

I heard this fascinating story about Harvard Psychologist Mahzarin Banaji on NPR during my commute two weeks ago. She co-wrote a book with Anthony Greenwald called Blind Spot: Hidden Biases of Good People.

In the story, Banaji tells the story of a former colleague at Yale who was an avid quilter. The woman sliced her hand open while washing a large glass bowl one day and rushed to the hospital. Once she checked into the ER she told the doctor on duty that as a lifelong quilter she wanted to ensure full movement in her hand. The doctor said, "Yes, yes, of course," and then proceeded to stitch her up.

Then a student working at the hospital recognized her and said hello. When the doctor realized she was a Yale professor he called in the best hand surgeon in the region, a medical team worked for hours, and tried to "save practically every last nerve" in her hand (Vedantam). Her ability to quilt was saved.

It wasn't that the ER doctor despised quilters... it was that something about her holding the title of Yale professor made him want to give her the absolute best.

If you're into kindness then you're not likely to be mean to the people you encounter each day.

But what if that's not really how prejudice rears its ugly head?

What if we go the extra mile for some people-- and we simply don't for others.

Hearing this story has made me examine when I do and don't "go the extra mile"and also made me question why I choose not to on occasion.

It also reminds me to a humorous version of this from 30 Rock, when Liz Lemon's doctor boyfriend (the adorable and hilarious Jon Hamm) lives in "the bubble" where people treat him better simply because he is terribly handsome.

What do you think? Do you think this is an accurate depiction of the way our world works?

Katharine Owens is a writer, professor, printmaker, mom, environmentalist, amateur naturalist, and lover of all things bug.


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  2. Carolina_Valdez_MillerMay 8, 2013 at 11:54 AM

    This post really caused me to stop and think. I mean, I think most people will in general just be kind, opening doors and being polite and whatnot. So, most people would probably think of themselves as generally kind people. But I wonder now how many times I've chosen to be kinder than normal (or than I "have" to be) to certain people over others. It's unnerving to think about it, really--I think such a prejudice probably occurs on a subconscious level for most people. And it's hard to change something if you dont even realize you're doing it. I don't know, I think I'm going to make this a bit of an experiment for me, at the very least just be more thoughtful about it.

  3. Tough question. But so good to think about. I do think we all (at times) treat people differently based on who they are. It's kind of like how we drive better and obey all the traffic laws when a police officer is driving behind us. I only hope we realize that ALL people, ALL of the time, deserve our very best and that we strive to treat them that way.

  4. Katharine A. OwensMay 8, 2013 at 3:31 PM

    well said, barbara-- and great analogy. My driving always improves around the police!

  5. katharine OwensMay 8, 2013 at 3:32 PM

    Same here, Carolina-- I've been more conscious of it since hearing the story... and I think that's the beginning of something important.