Prejudice is generally defined in one of two ways:
1) A preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience. This is the broadest definition and allows for being biased in a positive direction (such as assuming that harpists are poised and elegant). Wikipedia goes a step further, saying an affective feeling towards a person based on that person’s perceived group membership.
2) An unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reasons; unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature (like thinking all wrestlers are vulgar and uncouth), regarding an ethnic, racial, social, or religious group.
Prejudice is one of the root causes of human conflict. Conflict, in turn, can result in crime, war, systemic repression, and mass murder. Writers note: anything that creates conflict between characters or between a character and society can be used in your writing.
Where prejudice comes from:
1) We tend to take on the attitudes—including prejudices—of the social groups to which we belong. Social groups include gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, social class, religion, sexual orientation, profession, etc., etc., etc. Adopting the attitudes of one’s social groups, including family, is often a means of fitting in and being liked. Thus, prejudice may serve a social adjustive function.
2) Sometimes assuming a host of characteristics based on knowing one is cognitively efficient. We don’t have to spend time gathering information or even stopping to think.
3) And sometimes, prejudice serves an ego-defensive function. If simply by being who we are we can feel superior to whole groups of people—e.g., all women, all blacks, all immigrants, all yellow ducklings—it helps counterbalance negative information about oneself (such as being chronically unemployed, ugly, or unpopular).
Like other attitudes, prejudice has cognitive, affective, and behavioral components.
Cognitive: overgeneralized beliefs or stereotypes. E.g., Yankees fans are arrogant and obnoxious.
Affective: prejudice, feelings about people that could be positive but are more often negative. For example, I hate Yankee fans. They make me angry.
Behavioral: the treatment of others. When negative, it is discrimination, and may lead to excluding, avoiding, or biased treatment of group members. Example: I would never hire or become friends with a person if I knew he or she were a Yankees fan.
Although people can hold positive stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory actions based on group membership—for example, giving preferential treatment to people who are like themselves—it behooves us to focus on the negative because that is what is most problematic.
First impressions: When meeting new people, we automatically note race, gender, and age because these social categories provide a wealth of information about the individual—albeit, based on stereotypes.
Categories of bias: Racism, sexism, ageism, sexual orientation, nationalism, class-ism, religious discrimination, linguistic discrimination, and more.
Self-fulfilling Prophecy: An expectation held by a person about how another person will behave, which leads to treating the person according to our expectations. The treatment can influence the person to act according to our stereotypic expectations, thus confirming the original stereotypic beliefs. (Think teacher expectations, employer expectations, etc.)
Confirmation Bias: Paying more attention to information that is consistent with our stereotypic expectations than to information that is inconsistent with our expectations..
In-groups and Out-groups: An in-group is a group we see ourselves as belonging to, involving a strong sense of belonging and emotional connection that leads to in-group bias and preferences. Out-groups are seen as different in fundamental ways, less likable, often resulting in discrimination. When an in-group’s goals are delayed or thwarted, an out-group is often blamed. This is scape-goating.
Bottom line for writers: stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination can define characters and situations. Think thoughts, affects, and actions and how each can work with POV and plot.
Prejudice is an unjustified or incorrect attitude (usually negative) towards an individual based solely on his/her membership in a social group. In my opinion, prejudice is relatively benign for the target person if the prejudiced person does not act on the negative attitude. Unfortunately, this is seldom the case.
Discrimination is an action or behavior (including verbal)—usually negative—towards an individual or group of people on the basis of the prejudice. This is where the bad happens. Employment opportunities foreclosed. Inequality in lending practices. Lack of access to educational opportunities. Denial of goods or services (e.g., refusing to make a wedding cake for the wedding of a gay couple). Hate crimes.
A classic example of prejudice leading to negative behavior:
So, one big question for you as a writer is what your character does as a reflection of his/her prejudice.
Although prejudice is an umbrella term for all sorts of -isms (as seen in the image above) it is also a subset of attitudes. And prejudice includes all three components of an attitude: cognitive, behavioral, and affective—how one thinks, behaves, and feels about a person, object, or act.
But before you can write realistically about a prejudiced character, you need to decide what function the prejudice serves for this character.
Cognitive adjustive: Lacking other information, one accepts stereotypes and/or prejudiced views as a way of knowing how to think and behave with a stranger.
Social normative: Holding attitudes—including prejudice—that allow the person to fit into a group or social setting. This might be family, gang, town, workplace, social class—any group the person wants entry to.
Ego-defensive: The person is basically insecure and adopts a prejudice to bolster feelings of self-worth. If a person has perceived lacks or failures, one way to feel better about oneself is to develop negative attitudes toward a whole group of people who, by the nature of who they are, can be viewed as inferior.
So, do you want your character to change? Depending on the function served, prejudice may be more or less entrenched. If it is based on lack of information, education and factual data will result in attitude change. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting to know members of the group. If it is based on group membership or conformity, changing reference groups will lead to attitude change. For example, moving to a different part of the country, changing schools or jobs, marrying into a family with differing attitudes, etc. The ego-defensive function is the most difficult to change. A person might suppress expression of deeply held biases when they are socially unacceptable (i.e., politically incorrect) but allow them expression when the atmosphere is right. Hate speech, hate crimes, and the rise of white supremacist groups are examples easily tracked online.
The ego-defensive function is highly robust. Prejudice serving this function is immune to factual evidence to the contrary, simply not believing the data. If, somehow, the facts cannot be denied, then one or more other groups might become targets of his/her prejudice. Eliminating prejudice for such people often involves psychotherapy because the cause is rooted in self-esteem, self-concept, and other deep psychological needs.
Often prejudice is negatively related to the mental health of the prejudiced person. For example, racism is a symptom of lack of psychological integration, self-esteem, and inner security. Similarly, sexism is unhealthy. Psychologists looked at 10 years of data from nearly 20,000 men and found that those who value having power over women and who endorse playboy-type behavior, and who hold traditional notions of masculinity (such as self-reliance), were more likely to experience depression, stress, body image issues, substance abuse, and negative social functioning. So if your character’s prejudice is racism or sexism, consider giving him/her some of these other characteristics as well.
Last but not least, consider how your character’s prejudice might bring him/her into conflict with others.
Bottom line: Prejudice is a rich resource for writing your characters!