Overcoming Our Biases and Prejudices
Fr. Luke A. Veronis
In a fairly recent study published in Psychological Science, evidence was given to show that the human brain categorizes people within the first second after seeing a face. In other words, our brain very quickly will separate people according to groups, typically in the “us” verses “them” category. This separation most often occurs according to race. Even infants as young as 3 months old showed a preference for their own racial group, over some other racial group.
I remember two instances from my younger years which seemed to agree with this study. As a teenager, I would sometimes bring home my African-American basketball buddies, and it happened that one day my two year old nephew was there. When he saw my very dark-skinned friend, and it may have been the first time he ever saw a black person, he began to cry. He seemed afraid. And to tell the truth, I felt a bit embarrassed for my friend, wondering if my nephew was showing some kind of prejudice from such a young age.
A few years later, however, I was living in Kenya. I got a small sense of what it was like to be a minority, traveling around to villages that rarely saw wazungu, or white people. One day, I remember so clearly walking up to a hut where a little African toddler was happily splashing around in a tub of water on a hot day. Her joy, however, turned to terror as soon as this child saw me. Her eyes got real wide and she started screaming and crying. She possibly had never seen a white person before and thought she was looking at a white ghost!
I’ve never forgotten these two experiences, and they seem to concur with this study from Psychological Science - that from a very young age, our brains discern and sort people by categories, and one of the primary categories is race. In an interesting part of this experiment, young children were shown ambiguous photos of people smiling and frowning. All the people were either Asian or white. When shown to white American children, they overwhelmingly said that those who were smiling were white, while those frowning were Asian. Yet, the same test, with the same pictures, done in Taiwan revealed that the Taiwanese children came to the same conclusion based on race – the smiling faces were all Asian, while the frowning ones were white.
It’s disheartening to think that our biases may begin from such an early age. Of course, we know that as we grow older, other prejudices develop as well. More often than not, we too easily listen to and believe the false caricatures that society gives to people. So, whether it is the disastrous depictions of Jews in early 20th century Germany, or the malicious description of blacks in the American South throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, or vile caricatures of immigrants in our contemporary diaologe, or even the social media labels of extremists who demonize their political opponents, the list can go on. We see bias develop this “us” verses “them” attitude.
It’s interesting to note that the Greek word for devil is “diavolos,” which can mean “the one who divides.” Satan is always trying to divide and destroy, and he seems to be doing a very good job at that today in our society!
Are you familiar with the the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel - how humanity had the proud intention to separate from God and to build something that would lead them to heaven on their own? This pursuit wasn’t inspired by a good desire to unite with God, but by a proud and arrogant attitude that they could do anything they wanted without God. The diavolos deceived humanity with the lie that they can become gods without God. And thus, he tricked them into separating themselves from God Himself. He divided humanity and God, which led to more division within humanity itself.
Orthodox Christianity proclaims Good News that opposes division. For example, on the feast of Pentecost, which we celebrate today, we have a story about healing divisions. The followers of Jesus are filled with the Holy Spirit and miraculously empowered to speak in the different languages of the world. People of all nations can understand them. This is symbolic of how the Spirit of God unites us with one another. The hymns of Pentecost actually highlight how this feast reverses what was done at the Tower of Babel. Just as humanity was divided at Babel, now the Holy Spirit unites humanity with one another.
Saint Paul summarizes this spirit of unity when he wrote, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28)
Think about what a radical statement this was. Saint Paul was a Jew, and for all Jews of his time there was a very big distinction between Jews and non-Jews. The Jews were the chosen people of God who looked at themselves as separate from all other nations. And yet, the Spirit of God led His followers into a new understanding of the “other” where they were called to live in unity and oneness with one another. God’s Spirit transcends all ethnic divisions and calls His followers to lay aside any prejudice we may have toward the “other.”
Saint Paul even gives the concrete example that in Christ, there is “neither slave nor free.” Imagine, around 25% of all people in the Roman Empire during the time of Christ were slaves – property of another. There was a clear distinction between slaves and non-slaves. And yet, Saint Paul states that in God’s eyes, there is no difference between a slave or a slave-owner. We are brothers and sisters with one another. We do not judge another because of their economic class. We treat all equally.
The Apostle Paul gives another analogy by saying in Christ “there is neither male nor female.” Coming from a patriarchal Jewish society and living at a time when women were treated as second class citizens, the Church affirms that God doesn’t look at men as better than women. Both male and female have the same calling, and opportunity, to grow in their union with God, and enter into His heavenly kingdom. The gender barrier is broken when it comes to our journey in holiness. In Jesus Christ, male and female are united in their journey towards God!
Today, our American society is so divided. Politically, we are tearing each other apart. We see the vestiges of racism still very much alive. We too readily believe the false caricatures we place on one another. Let us be on guard against any biases and prejudices we hold. No matter what attitude has been instilled in us from a young age, or even if we have allowed ourselves to be influenced by others, may we remember that Jesus Christ calls all His followers to a new standard of looking at the “other.” We must reject any bias, we must put aside every prejudice, and we must begin seeing the “other,” especially those who seem so different from us, as our brother and sister, as a fellow child of God.