Overcoming our Biases and Prejudices

In a 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 vs. 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 point this out. As a teenager, I would sometimes bring home one of my black basketball buddies, and it happened that one day my two year old niece was there. When she saw my very dark-skinned friend, and it may have been the first time she ever saw a black person, she began to cry. She seemed afraid. And to tell the truth, I felt a bit embarrassed for my friend, wondering if my niece was showing some kind of prejudice from such a young age.

A few years later, however, I was living in Africa. I got a small sense of what it was like to be a minority, traveling sometimes on a bus where I would be the only white person around. Well, I lived and worked mainly in Western Kenya, where I would often travel around to villages that rarely saw wazungu, or white people. I remember so clearly how one day I was walking up to a house where a little African toddler was happily splashing around in a tub of water on a hot day. Her joy, however, seemed to turn to terror as soon as this child saw me. Her eyes got real wide and she started screaming and crying. I think she thought she was looking at a white ghost!

I’ve never forgotten these two experiences, and they made me wonder if our prejudices begin from such a young age. Well, this study from Psychological Science seems to affirm what I experienced - 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 show 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 interesting to think whether our biases begin from such an early age. Of course, we know that as we grow older, many other prejudices develop consciously, and often unconsciously. More often than not, when we have little intimate knowledge or contact with people who are different than us, we easily listen to and believe the false caricatures that our society gives of these 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 the traditional images between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, or Palestinians and Jews in the Middle East, or the list can go on, we see that when there is little intimate knowledge or friendly contact with people who are different, we than cultivate this us vs. them attitude.

So whether it is in social class, ethnicity, religion, political parties, sports teams, or whatever – it can be big or small, seemingly serious and important, or silly and superficial, we see how easily we fall into the deception of dividing, separating, splitting up, or disconnecting one from the other. I’m sure we could do a simple test here in the Church. Let’s have an informal meeting, and let’s start talking about politics. Watch how quickly our church will divide into Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, and then watch how quickly the good spirit in the church will turn ugly.

It’s interesting to note that the Greek word for devil is diavolos, which can mean “the one who separates or divides.” Satan is always trying to divide and destroy.

We can even look at how the Old Testament event of Babel came about - 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 the proud and arrogant attitude that they could do anything we wanted. The diavolos deceived humanity, just as he deceived Eve in the Garden of Eden, with the lie that we can be God without God. And thus, he tricked them into separating themselves from God Himself.

Next Sunday, we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, which is precisely the opposite of this danger of dividing and separating. All the disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit, and this empowering of the Holy Spirit leads them to speak in the different languages of the world. It is symbolic of how the Spirit of God unites us with one another. The hymns of Pentecost will point to the fact that this feast reverses what was done at the tower of Babel. Just as humanity was divided by that event in the Old Testament, now the Holy Spirit fills the followers of Christ and leads them to unity with one another. It doesn’t matter what is one’s race or color or language or ethnicity, we are united and one in Christ.

In fact, the early Church lived this unity out by accepting all people into her embrace. As St. Paul so beautifully wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “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.” Gal 3:27-28

Think about this radical statement. For the Pharisee and Jew which Paul was, there was a very big distinction between Jews and non-Jews. The Jews were the chosen people of God. They thought they were separate from everyone else. And yet, the Spirit of God was leading His followers into a new understanding. In Christ, we are called to live in unity and oneness with one another. God’s Spirit transcends all ethnic boundaries and calls His followers to lay aside any ethnic prejudice we may have toward the “other.” In Jesus Christ, we are called to be one!

Then Paul goes on to say that in Christ, there is “neither slave nor free.” Imagine, around 25% of all the people who lived 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, St. Paul is stating that in God’s eyes, there is no difference between a slave or a slave-owner. We are called to be brothers and sisters with one another. We are not to judge another because of their economic class. And this spirit is one we need to carry today – to show no distinction between social classes. We are to treat all equal – whether lower class, middle class or upper class. Wealth holds no special status in the eyes of God, and thus, should not lead us to treat or view people differently. In Jesus Christ, we are called to be one!

Finally, St. Paul says that in Christ, “there is neither male nor female.” Coming from the patriarchal Jewish society, and living at a time when women were treated at best as second class citizens, here the Church is saying that God doesn’t look at men in a better way 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!

So let us reflect on the biases and prejudices we hold, many of which are unconscious. No matter what attitude has been instilled in us from a young age, or even if we have been influenced by the spirit of the culture and society from which we come, let us remember that our Lord Jesus Christ is calling us to a new standard. We are called to go beyond our biases, to put aside our prejudices, and to see the other as our brother and sister.

“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.”

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