by: AJ DeVito
Prejudice and Discrimination: The Adversity of the Individual
The world is a complex place in which people of all backgrounds must learn how to live and peacefully coexist with one another. In spite of the vast differences humanity can have, it is important to understand that the emphasis of what unites us is what will go a long way towards solving problems. According to an ABC News article (2004), Matthew Shepard who was a College student living in Laramie, Wyoming was fatally beaten by two individuals due to his sexual orientation. This was characterized as a hate crime due to the motivation of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson to harm Matthew Shepard for being openly Gay. The question then becomes: How does a society get to a point in which a hate crime can happen? While our differences on ideas and life can be vast, it does not justify violence such as what happened to Matthew Shepard. The prejudice and discriminatory actions that derive from it are a part of the focus. Moreover, how does this prejudice and discrimination affect the emotional and physical health of the person who experiences hateful words or violence? While perplexing, these are all questions that can and should be answered. In this case, the focus will emerge with three aspects of humanity: sexual orientation, gender, and race as focal points of prejudice and discrimination.
To commence, what exactly is prejudice and discrimination? Robert Baron, Donn Byrne, and Nyla Branscombe (2007) in Mastering Social Psychology, write, “Prejudice is the feelings component of attitudes toward social groups. Prejudice reflects the feelings experienced that are based solely on a person’s membership in a particular group” (p.167). Therefore, prejudice is derived from an emotional place of the human condition which is exactly what makes the point of view so difficult to change. If prejudice was based on purely rational terms, it could be logically proven wrong through argument and attitudes would change more easily. As Matthew Shepard’s case above proved, the prejudice involved on the level of sexual orientation is part of the pre-conceived ideas which played a role in the actions of Aaron and Russell. This leads one to the definition of what discrimination is.
Discrimination can be cognitively conceived as the behavior that stems from the prejudice of a person. Baron, Byrne, and Branscombe (2007) write, “Laws, social pressure, fear of retaliation—all serve to deter people from putting their prejudiced views into open practice. For these reasons, blatant forms of discrimination—negative actions toward the objects of racial, sexual orientation, gender, ethnic, or religious prejudice—have decreased somewhat in recent years in the United States and other countries” (p.175). Thus, discrimination is the actual manifestation of the underlying prejudice people have on both a cognitive and affective level. Aaron and Russell’s violence against Matthew Shepard is probably the most dramatic and depressing example of prejudice becoming an action in the form of discrimination. The fact that Matthew Shepard was murdered on that fateful night is a testament to how deep the well of prejudice truly is and how it can change the life of someone forever. Now, one can begin an examination of how these forces affect the individual on the level of sexual orientation.
Sexual orientation is one component of identity to examine in so far as how Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender people must deal with a heterosexist society. Dr. Sean Cahill (2004) writes in his book, Same Sex Marriage in the United States: Focus on the Facts, that, “In reaction to these developments, in 1996 Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which defended marriage as a “legal union between one man and one woman”, thereby restricting federal benefits, such as Social Security survivor benefits, to heterosexual couples” (p.5). Thus, relationship recognition and the host of rights which derive from civil marriage is essentially denied to Gay couples at the federal level on the basis of sexual orientation. This is one example of the legal exclusion and inequality that Gay and Lesbian peoples face in the United States. Moreover, how exactly does this exclusion affect Gay and Lesbian peoples? Researchers Sharon Rostosky, Ellen Riggle, Sharon Horne, and Angela Miller (2009) in their research article, Marriage Amendments and Psychological Distress in Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual (LGB) Adults, write, “Except in the case of internalized homophobia, each minority stress factor (negative media messages, negative conversations, LGBT activism) significantly increased among participants living in states that had just passed a marriage amendment but not among participants in other states” (p.60). Thus, the Gays and Lesbians living in states with anti-Gay rhetoric experienced a great deal more of publicity which was construed as hurtful and unproductive. On the social level, there was a clear depiction of these amendments that was very pronounced and very clear. However, what exactly did these marriage amendments affect on the personal level?
Everyone handles stress a bit differently, but there are some reactions to perceived discrimination that are clearly pronounced. Rotosky, Riggle, Horne, and Miller (2009) also go on to state that, “Results of the multivariate test of the psychological distress variables were significant, F(3, 1483) = 13.62, p < .001, and…indicated that participants in PASS states reported more negative affect, higher levels of stress, and higher levels of depressive symptoms than participants in NONE/Prior states” (pp. 60-61). Therefore, there was a clear response by Gays and Lesbians to the stressor of anti-Gay rhetoric and legislation being passed. Whatever an individuals personal opinion about the hot button issue of marriage equality, it is apparent by research that there is marked harm being done to Gays and Lesbians by negative and prejudice charged rhetoric. The negative emotions brought forward noticeably in the form of Depression like symptoms are a result of the media and societies outwardly expressed negative attitudes towards Gay and Lesbian peoples. Rotosky, Riggle, Horne, and Miller (2009) also stated that in their survey, “We found support for the hypothesis that marriage-amendment campaigns increase the minority stress and psychological stress for LGB adults, thus creating a harmful environment that may adversely affect health and well-being” (p.62). Moreover, it is made abundantly clear that legal battles over equal rights exact an immense toll on the wellness of the minority whose rights are in question. However, relationship recognition and family rights are not the only area in which the LGBT community faces issues of prejudice and discrimination. It is also the workplace.
The notion of diligent work no matter how great the odds are is an important value which sustains a society. However, all too often, Gays and Lesbians must worry about the workplace if there does not happen to be any anti-discrimination policies set in place. The United States military is an honorable career, but Gays and Lesbian are still discriminated against in this organization. Richard Schaefer (2006) in his book, Racial and Ethnic Groups, writes, “However, he [Bill Clinton] encountered even greater pressure from opponents and eventually compromised in 1994 with the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy” (p.450). While former President Bill Clinton’s attempt at bipartisanship was commendable, it left a policy which still opened the door to discrimination against Gays and Lesbians. Schaefer (2006) goes onto elaborate that, “The policy allows Lesbians and Gay men to serve in the military as long as they keep their homosexuality a secret, but commanders can still investigate and dismiss military personnel if they find any evidence that they have committed homosexual acts” (pp.450-451). Thus, the military can still throw people out on the basis of their sexual orientation. In fact, a story written by Propeller.com, A Kansas National Guard Member Returns From Iraq To A Girlfriend's Kiss...And A Discharge, states that, “More than 12,500 gay and lesbian soldiers have been discharged since "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" began in 1993” (2009). This statistic is astonishing when you think about the sheer number of people who have had to completely change their life around by finding a new career. This probably included medical staff and foreign language translators who are vital to our national security. Therefore, job discrimination which affects a person’s ability to function and be a productive member of society is apparent.
Anecdotes can provide a powerful insight into how institutionalized bigotry affects the life of a person, and this one is no exception. From the same article above, A Kansas National Guard Member Returns From Iraq To A Girlfriend's Kiss...And A Discharge, we learn of the story of Amy Brian who was discharged from the military because of being seen by a fellow military person at Walmart giving a kiss to her Girlfriend. While the anecdote does not provide a quantifiable bit of research, it provides insight into the problem with the policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. If the friend of the man had been a man kissing his Girlfriend, would he be discharged from the military? The answer is that no, he would not. This is what makes the heart of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” a discriminatory piece of legislation that makes the United States armed forces neither a free or open serving military. The personal impacts of this discrimination would lead to a lot of negative consequences for the person fired including: depression, anxiety, and other negative affective components from being fired from their job simply on the basis of his or her sexual orientation. However, when it comes to job discrimination, things are looking better for Gays and Lesbians in the general opinion.
The prospect of losing ones job because he or she is Gay or Lesbian must be a frightening prospect. According to Dr. Sean Cahill (2004) in his book, Same Sex Marriage in the United States: Focus on the Facts, also notes that, “Over the past decade, strong majorities have emerged in public opinion polls in support of the right to serve in the military, employment non-discrimination laws, and equal benefits for same-sex partners” (p.73). This, in and of itself, is a major development because of the majority rules style of Democracy employed in the United States. By having the majority of the population support anti-discrimination policy, this will make it more likely that the United States Congress and President will move to enact better legal equality and protections for Gays and Lesbians. Furthermore, Dr. Sean Cahill (2004) notes that, “In the 2000 National Election Study, 56% of Republican voters, 70% of Independents, and 75% of Democrats supported sexual orientation nondiscrimination laws” (p.73). Thus, the future does look promising for more anti-discrimination measures to be put in place. Especially given the above numbers, a Democratic Congress and executive as the nation has now is in a position to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and enact ENDA or the Employment Nondiscrimination Act which would include sexual orientation and gender identity. By doing this two things, the United States values and protects human rights by ensuring our military is open and free as well as job security. Now, one can move onto the story of gender and how women have been discriminated against throughout history.
Women have been historically discriminated against in the United States in very profound ways. Richard Schaefer (2006) in his book, Racial and Ethnic Groups, elaborates that, “In 1879, an amendment to the Constitution was introduced that would have given women the right to vote. Not until 1919 was it finally passed, and not until the next year was it ratified as the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution” (p.388). The fact that Women did not gain the right to vote until eighty eight years after the founding of the United States speaks volumes to how unequal women were. The direct impact upon women was that it severely limited their ability to affect sweeping political and social change. Potentially even more damaging was the direct message it sent to women: You are not equal to men and that men essentially control women’s fate. While things have improved a lot for women over time, there still remains a great deal of prejudice and discrimination that happens against women today including in the very way we think about our morality.
The complex notion of morality is a word which conjures a great deal of world views and ideas. Within the book World Ethics, Carol Gilligan’s (2003) article “In a Different Voice: Women’s Conceptions of Self and Morality”, she writes, “Kohlberg (1971) also identifies a strong interpersonal bias in the moral judgments of women, which leads them to be considered at the third of his six-stage developmental sequence” (p.313). Thus, the manner in which women stereotypically view morality places women in a lower stage within Kohlberg’s theoretical frame work. This, at its core, seems sexist because it is more or less an androcentric interpretation of morality that rigidly leaves out other perspectives in moral development. Carol Gilligan (2003) goes onto say, “And yet, herein lies the paradox, for the very traits that have traditionally defined the “goodness” of women, their care for and sensitivity to the needs of others, are those that mark them as deficient in moral development” (p. 313). Moreover, Gilligan drives home the point that defining morality in purely masculine-stereotyped terms make women automatically appear less moral than men. When, in reality, it is a poor theoretical framework which diminishes the points of view of women while elevating men’s perspective. Thus, in the realm of academia, we can see how women’s identity and perspectives have been discriminated against by being defined in traditionally masculine terms. By doing this, we diminish the plurality of views that come from the construct of gender and how it applies to the moral development of people through out their lives. Now, one can look to the creation and development of gender roles in how they affect the individual by discrimination.
Our gender is constructed largely through social influence of the community around us. Sharon Hanna, Rose Suggett, and Doug Radtke (2008) in their book, Person to Person: Positive Relationships Don’t Just Happen, expound upon the idea that, “…whereas, gender role consists of personality characteristics, attitudes, behaviors, and expectations about femininity and masculinity” (p.55). Therefore, our identity as men and women is largely shaped by the cultural definitions of what it is to be a woman or a man. How does this lead to potential discrimination? Sharon Hanna, Rose Suggett, and Doug Radtke (2008) go onto write that, “By contrast, feminine traits are devalued. For example, women who develop stereotypical masculine personality traits such as independence are praised; not so for men who reflect the softer feminine side of nurturance and warmth. This leads to a devaluation of what is considered female” (p. 59). Thus, Women have to juggle their personality traits much more to be effective in the workplace due to stereotypical views of how women “should be”. This leads one to a comprehensive and extremely important subject of how discrimination impacts women: Workplace issues.
One has to work in order to provide for themselves and their family whether you are a woman or man. Richard Schaefer (2006) notes that, “This alarming trend has come to be known as the feminization of poverty. In 2003, 10.8 percent of all families in the United States lived in poverty, but 30 percent of families headed by single mothers did so” (p.396). Thus, the statistics bring forth a truth in the United States society that poverty is most directly affecting women in an adverse way. By not having the means to support themselves or their families, this creates barriers to success which are limiting and proves that the standard of living is compromised due to high prices of items from food to gas. Richard Schaefer (2006) goes onto say that, “However, conflict theorists believe that higher rates of poverty among women can be traced to two distinct causes: Sex discrimination and sexual harassment on the job place women at a clear disadvantage when seeking vertical social mobility” (p.396). Therefore, discrimination clearly has a component of disempowerment which is very psychological in nature. When a person feels like they cannot better her or himself because of discriminatory barriers, then there is a loss of motivation to do your best. What other direct impacts on women does workplace discrimination have?
Beyond the cognitive manner in which we perceive ourselves, there is also the affective component which can be shaped by discrimination. Eliza Pavalko, Krysia Mossakowski, and Vanessa Hamilton (2003) completed research known as Does Perceived Discrimination Affect Health? Longitudinal Relationships Between Work Discrimination and Women’s Physical and Emotional Health, and found that, “Women who reported that they experienced discrimination between 1984 and 1989 and those who reported discrimination from 1977 to 1982 reported more distress in 1989” (p.25). Therefore, the answer to the question is clearly yes. When someone is very upset and stressed about a situation like discrimination, this will likely decrease their concentration and focus which will reduce their effectiveness as an employee. Moreover, discrimination adversely impacts the person or employee which in turn affects the overall strength of the company or business. Discrimination is a negative barrier that seems to harm everyone in the process. Eliza Pavalko, Krysia Mossakowski, and Vanessa Hamilton (2003) also expound upon the finding that, “The continuing effect of 1984-1989 discrimination provides strong evidence that perceptions of work discrimination do increase women’s level of distress, but also that this is an effect that becomes evident shortly after the experiences occur” (p.25). Thus, whether it is truly discrimination or not, even the belief of discrimination by company policy creates adverse effects for the individual. The above study makes it abundantly clear that discriminatory policy and action causes a marked shift towards more stress and upset from the workplace. Now, one can look toward another barrier to women’s success as a source of discrimination.
Many Women have successful careers and have defined themselves by their own sense of self through independence. Richard Schaefer (2006) brings up an important point in that, “In making hiring decisions, executives may assume that women are not serious about their commitment to the job and will be “distracted” by family and home. They assume that women are on a mommy track, an unofficial career track that firms use for women who want to divide their attention between work and family” (p.394). Yet again, those who are in the higher positions of a company base their decisions on gender stereotypes rather than on a woman’s merits. It is doubtful that you would hear employers use the term “daddy track” and attribute the negative aspects to men as they do with the “mommy track” towards women. Therefore, discrimination is elucidated on the level that men and women are not even viewed on a level playing field in the first place when it comes to the job application and the interviewing process. This is a cognitive component of the person who is acting in a discriminatory manner based on the prejudice they have about women when it comes to the work world and family life. Eliza Pavalko, Krysia Mossakowski, and Vanessa Hamilton (2003) also note in their research findings that, “It appears that earlier perceptions of discrimination (1977-1982) increase risk of physical and emotional health problems relatively soon after those experiences (e.g., health in 1982-1984), and those problems increase one’s risk of distress several years later” (p.25). The fascinating finding here was how previous discrimination led to exacerbated affective and physiological problems for women even later in time. This research finding is a testament to the emotional and physical toll that discrimination can take upon a woman’s well-being. Now, one can examine the effects of discrimination in relation to ones race.
Another aspect of identity where humanity seems to focus on our differences is that of race or more generally skin color. According to Charles Morris and Albert Maisto in their book, Basic Psychology, they define the issue by saying that, “Racism is the belief that members of certain racial or ethnic groups are innately inferior. Racists believe that intelligence, industry, morality, and other valued traits are biologically determined and therefore cannot be changed” (p.486). Thus, the operational definition makes one realize that racism has both an affective and cognitive component to it. Not only is racism emotionally rooted prejudice that is based on what has been taught about ‘different’ races, but racism is also a cognition and a framework of thinking. How does the negativity and discrimination associated with racism affect people who face racism? According to Dr. Gilbert Gee (2002) in his research study, A Multilevel Analysis of the Relationship Between Institutional and Individual Racial Discrimination and Health Status, he found that, “Self-reported discrimination predicted lower levels of mental health and higher levels of psychological symptomology (according to the GSI, PSDI, PST)” (p.S51). Therefore, this study indicates that direct discrimination on the basis of one’s race has a negative impact upon a person’s health and well-being. Moreover, it is important to let racist individuals know that their discriminatory actions are actually hurting people in a profound way that must be stopped. While it might be difficult to change long held attitudes about various racial minorities, it is pertinent to the very well-being of our society collectively. The legacy of discrimination on the basis of race or ethnicity still stretches into today.
Native Americans have endured a tremendous amount of discrimination in the United States from our beginning moments as a nation all the way to now. Nadine Tafoya and Ann Del Vecchio (2005) in their article, Back to the Future: An Examination of the Native American Holocaust Experience, write that, “As a result of the genocidal U.S. policies toward native peoples, unresolved grief is a day-to day dynamic that affects the lives of Native Americans” (p.56). Therefore, the feeling of sadness, loss, and anguish has persisted across generational lines to produce a marked decline in life satisfaction for Native American peoples. This goes hand in hand with the above research findings as the negative effects of discrimination persist well after the initial occurrence of the discrimination. However, in the case of Native Americans, this was widespread and systematic discrimination which left many people permanently hurt or even dead. Nadine Tafoya and Ann Del Vecchio (2005) also state that, “The dynamics of unresolved grief include symptoms and manifestations that affect every aspect of the individual’s life, including: somatic symptoms such as migraines, stomachaches, joint pain, dizziness, chronic fatigue, physical stress and vulnerability to chronic health problems, such as Type II diabetes, depression, substance abuse, preoccupation with death, suicidal ideation and gestures, chronic, delayed, or impaired grief process, including searching and pining behaviors” (p.56). The astonishing depth and breadth of symptoms deriving from dealing with this trauma are so all encompassing and sad that it is amazing people can even function. If there is any doubt that racist discrimination adversely impacts the individual, then the above reactions to discrimination clearly denotes none because of how powerful its negative impacts on the individual can be.
Native Americans have been through a great deal of social upheaval as a people due to the extreme trauma, discrimination, and social isolation they have had to endure as a people. CharlesEtta Sutton and Mary Anne Broken Nose (2005) in their article, American Indian Families: An Overview, expound upon the notion that, “Contrary to the typical pattern of violence in which most acts are committed between members of one ethnic group, the members of another group, primarily Whites, victimize American Indians. The therapist should be aware of such phenomena as suicide, depression, and alcoholism within the context of ongoing oppression combined with a genocidal history” (p.47). Thus, there is a lot of clarity when it comes to racism in addition to how the disempowerment and mistreatment of a people can have so much depth that it ends up being a major detriment to virtually everyone in the community. There are other important components to racism to examine as well.
Political issues inevitably end up as a part of the mix of society when dealing with issues surrounding prejudice and racism. Richard Schaefer (2006) notes that, “Compared with Whites, Blacks have higher death rates from diseases of the heart, pneumonia, diabetes, and cancer” (p.229). Thus, healthcare as a major political issue comes to the front and center for the African American community. Is there a lack of opportunity due to out of control premiums? Is it just too expensive for people living on or below the poverty line? These are important questions to answer because the health of everyone in our country is equally important, and racism should not stop someone from being able to attain high quality and also affordable health insurance. Richard Schaefer (2006) goes onto highlight the idea that, “Drawing on the conflict perspective, sociologist Howard Waitzkin (1986) suggests that racial tensions contribute to the medical problems of African Americans. In his view, the stress resulting from racial prejudice and discrimination helps to explain the higher rates of hypertension found among African Americans (and Hispanics) than among Whites” (p.229). Thus, the psychological component of racism translates into health problems that add to the burden of an already ineffective healthcare system. This sociological theory connects to the broader concept of prejudice as being rooted in our emotions. If negative emotions can increase stress which could lead to more issues with the heart, than one can make a tentative hypothesis that health problems are influenced or exacerbated directly by the adversity an individual faces while having to deal with the racism of the greater society or on the individual level
One has examined how heterosexism adversely impacts the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community, how sexism and the unequal views of gender hurt women, and how racism negatively harms the African American and Native American communities. By comprehending how prejudice and discrimination affects the life of a person on a variety of circumstances, society gains an important moment of reflection. For far too long the United States culture has engaged in discriminatory actions against various minority groups. The research garnered from various sources helped to illuminate the legal, social, psychological, and emotional difficulties that act as barriers to the success and well-being of various minority groups. Interestingly enough, the word minority itself is a word which indicates diminished status. Minority is a reminder that one is statistically or socially placed outside of who is considered the majority.
Only by learning to more peacefully coexist among one another and by viewing one another as equal in dignity may we begin to dissolve the immense issues of heterosexism, sexism, and racism. Humanity is not perfect, but it does not mean one should not strive to improve life conditions not only for herself, but for that of her neighbor as well. The more we think of one another in terms of what we share—our common humanity—the more likely we can move towards reducing prejudice and the discriminatory actions which stem from prejudice. By the life stories, research, and theoretical framework of various academic disciplines, a clear picture emerges of what it is like to be considered a minority in the United States today. In spite of the adversity that some individuals will inevitably have to deal with because of this prejudice, hopefully the society can make things better by taking a good look in the mirror. Our thoughts, feelings, and words impact people in profound ways. It is ultimately our choice as to how we shape society.
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