Unlearning prejudice is a conversation with yourself
I am almost certain that no living adult can say that they have not been taught to be prejudiced in one form or another. It may not be that they were taught prejudice but internalised it from their environment.
Whether one defines something as prejudice is another debate, but nobody has escaped the conditioning of society.
People often rationalise its presence in society with clichès like "that's just the way it is".
We accept prejudice as common place in society because we have no frame of reference for a society that is just. Indeed, it has been that way for a very long time, but injustice and inequality are never the natural order of things.
Unlearning prejudice is a difficult thing to do. It comes with much recrimination and feelings of anxiety. The suggestion that we are not the morally upstanding people we thought we were is devastating.
The realisation that we are implicated in the oppression of other people, just like the world leaders we avidly chastise, chips away at our self-belief.
The enormity of the task of changing seems insurmountable, but it really is a daily conversation with the self.
In the same way we have learnt to believe certain things, through repetition, we can unlearn them.
The world as we know it is built on the exploitation of difference to rank living beings into a hierarchy. The ranking serves to split power and enables control of society and the natural environment.
The investments we have been taught to make in this hierarchy is not indicative of our ethical codes, but rather the way we've been positioned by systems of power.
When people are called out for engaging in antisocial behaviour we often see them display a fragility that manifests as defensiveness. We are afraid to confront the role we play in maintaining systems of power.
Admitting to the existence of the system highlights that we are complicit when we choose inaction. We are afraid of being bad people. Being white, heterosexual, cis-gender and able-bodied, for example, does not make you a bad person, but what you choose to do with the power it gives you determines who you are.
Professor Lewis Gordon clarified it beautifully when he said that you can't choose which privileges you are born with but must understand that it comes with a licence to oppress and you can choose what you do with that.
It is necessary for all of us to choose wisely what we do with the licence we were given to oppress other people and beings. Rejecting that licence is a daily process of repetition, so as not to be seduced by the temptation of power.
Failure also occurs on the journey to self-improvement. This is an opportunity to try again, knowing that there may be those who will not forgive you. You are not entitled to forgiveness. When you harm someone, it does not matter what your intention was.
These are opportunities to reflect on how severe the harm of prejudice is and should propel your efforts to unlearn even further. After every failure, the conversation with the self evolves. Reflecting on the consequences of your prejudice is an important part of the conversation. There is no end to this journey.
*Jamil F. Khan is a PhD candidate in Critical Diversity Studies
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