Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Deconstructing the Pyramid of Prejudice

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Deconstructing the Pyramid of Prejudice

Article excerpt

On the surface, negative comments by students about race, gender, or sexual preference may seem to be part of the benign banter of youth, but they're exactly where teachers should start their battle--and lessons--to build a better child and world.

Every teacher has heard them, often several times a day: comments that rub them the wrong way but seem too innocent to challenge. "Boys will be boys," Mr. Shubert says in response to a playground tussle. After Ernie gets 99% on the math quiz, Jamie blurts, "Figures; he's Chinese." "That's so gay," Tricia moans when her teacher assigns tough homework. Teachers who want to help students become competent, caring adults cannot just help Ernie learn math. They need to help Mr. Shubert, Jamie, and Tricia see the harm in their seemingly innocuous comments.

While subdued forms of everyday prejudice may seem harmless, appearances can be deceiving. Such commonplace prejudices form the foundation upon which more extreme acts of prejudice build. And they also leave us vulnerable to costly errors of judgment that can have tragic consequences. That is why addressing prejudice in the classroom is as crucial to our youth's education as learning to read.

Comprehending the pyramid principle of prejudice and its profound educational implications is the first step toward reducing the violence, discrimination, hatred, and bigotry that spread like wildfires in the dry climate created by everyday prejudice. Before we explain the pyramid principle, though, let's take a quick scan of the psychology of prejudice and how it relates to discrimination and the "-isms."

The psychology of prejudice

We all know what prejudices are. They are prejudgments that rely on stereotypes (Allport, Clark, & Pettigrew, 1979). They are assumptions made about people based on their association with certain groups. Prejudices arise and persist because they serve important social and psychological functions.

In one sense, prejudices reflect an inevitable part of human cognition. The world is such a complex place that simplification is necessary for understanding. We would be overwhelmed if we tried to approach each new individual with no preconceived ideas. Before we even consciously think about it, we already have formed opinions about that boy who walked into class on the first day sporting a Mohawk and skull shirt. Stereotypes are cognitive maps that help us simplify our highly complex social world. To some extent, they are necessary for mental efficiency and ease (Dalrymple, 2007). Still, that efficiency comes at the cost of accuracy and fairness.

The psychological roots of prejudice also extend deep into our emotional selves (Whitley & Kite, 2010). One major source of prejudice is the pervasive human need for positive self-regard. We want to feel good about ourselves and the groups with which we identify. As a male, I want to feel good about being a man. As a member of this nation, I want to feel patriotic. A powerful way to buttress our sense of worthiness, competence, and belonging is to compare ourselves to others we perceive as inferior. We might muse: "I'm so glad I'm American; we're better than the French," even if we're sensitive enough not to say it aloud. This need for favorable social comparison provides fuel to the fires of prejudice. Prejudices, after all, guarantee in advance that "we" will compare favorably to "them."

Prejudices support numerous other psychological functions that need not concern us here. But one more deserves special mention. For those who are relatively privileged in society, prejudices can blind us to the injustices that protect our privileges. For example, not long ago a wealthy presidential candidate who spent his early years in security and abundance, who attended expensive private schools and benefitted from the models and social networks that his family, neighborhood, and schools afforded, still claimed that his wealth was all his own doing (Parenne, 2012). …

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