Family Works

Speaking on prejudice

Rob Coombs ID. Min. Ph.D.
Posted 9/17/17

I will never forget the day my daughter, Amy, came home from church at age 3. Wide-eyed with amazement, she could barely contain herself as she told me what she had learned in Sunday school.

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Family Works

Speaking on prejudice


I will never forget the day my daughter, Amy, came home from church at age 3. Wide-eyed with amazement, she could barely contain herself as she told me what she had learned in Sunday school.

“Daddy, did you know that there are black people in this world?”

“Really,” I replied, pretending to be just as amazed. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she replied with certainty. “We learned about black people in church today.”

Appearing to be in deep thought, I asked her, “Have you ever seen a black person, Amy?”

Her answer was immediate. “No. Never, Daddy.” I smiled, but said nothing else. I didn’t want to chance spoiling her naivety. You see, our next-door neighbors were black and their two children were the same ages as Amy and her brother. Amy had begun playing with little Nsilo after the two of them learned to crawl. Daily, they were in and out of each other’s home. Yet she didn’t know he was black. She would learn, but not on that day and certainly not from me.

Prejudice is a form of mental illness. I’m convinced of this. Unfortunately, unlike most mental illnesses which are mostly dangerous only to the individual and his immediate family, prejudice can result in a shared mania that brings great harm and pain to many.

This pain is a result of the primary expression of prejudice – an irrational hatred of others because of their race, nationality, religion, gender, social class, or some other meaningless characteristic. Because it is a deeply ingrained irrational feeling and because it is often all-consuming, this irrationality has proven itself repeatedly to be resistant to all reason and evidence contrary to its poisoned convictions.

The most dangerous potential of prejudice is that it creates a rationale for seemingly “nice” people to treat an entire group of people as less than human simply because that group reflects the object of prejudice.

Erik Erikson, the most famous human developmental thinker of our time, attributed the capacity for inhuman acts by decent human beings to what he termed “pseudospeciation.”

He used this term as a description of the process of an “in” group defining an “out” group and then deciding that its members are less than human. When it is believed that a group is not really human, the normal standards of human conduct toward them no longer apply. They are less than human and therefore, it does not cause guilt to treat them inhumanly.

Horrific acts then can be justified by “nice” people who become capable of running gas chambers, annihilating entire groups of people for philosophical or religious differences, or helping to maintain the status quo that keeps one group “in” and the other group “out.”

For the most part, I don’t believe most of us are taught prejudice. Rather, prejudice seems to be informally “caught” rather than formally “taught.”

Perhaps this is why prejudice is such an insidious form of mental illness. We gradually acquire prejudice, hardly with any recognition, and then justify our prejudices as “just the way things are.”

I wish “the way things are” was different. I wish we could all be like my daughter at age 3.

Rob Coombs is a professor with a doctor of ministry degree and a doctor of philosophy with an emphasis in Family Systems.


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