Constructing and Deconstructing Prejudice

How powerful cultural rhetorics are started, and stopped

Posted Nov 02, 2016

How do our action-commitments – our decisions to do one thing and not another – get constructed?  And how can we change those choice-patterns when they are no longer appropriate for our societies and for ourselves?

This is the fourth in a series of essays on prejudice.  Prejudice, as I described it in my last writing, is less an “attitude” than it is a “resource system.”  Although it’s common to think of prejudice as a set of values and behavior-dispositions we carry about in our heads, a more expansive view is to see it also as a set of social and cultural formations, group-supported ideas and practices that can be used to disable the life-prospects of wide categories of people. Most of the time, we do not think about these resources or our access to them, But when the situation demands they can be brought out and applied, sometimes with deadly effect.

In this essay, I introduce the perspective that these resources function as “rhetorics.”  In academia, rhetoric is usually defined as verbal or written communication, especially of the type which seeks to persuade others to follow the presenter’s preferred course of belief and action.  Sometimes, these appeals feature complicated logic-based arguments and fancy aesthetic flourishes.  But persuasion can also be more direct, as in: “Do it or I’ll hurt you.”  The literary critic Kenneth Burke demonstrated many of the different arguments that have been important historically and cross-culturally.  Audiences have been moved by appeals to mystery, logic, science, and tradition.  We have been taught to rely on gods, kings, and other, less exalted “betters.”  In the modern age, we court the opinions of ordinary people and, increasingly, our own judgments.  Whatever the sources of these guiding supports, in literature – and in life – we consult visions for how the world should (and shouldn’t) operate and for our proper place within it. From these we build “motives” for action.

Prejudice, as I see it, is similar to the other action-supports we develop and maintain.  It is founded on certain arguments about what other people – and by contrast, we ourselves – are like.  It is usually colored with aesthetic (or feeling-based) commitments.  It is bolstered by moral judgments, assessments that the view we hold is not only correct but “right” in an ethical sense.  Finally, prejudice is thought to be effective or functional.  When we apply it, we expect others to feel the power of what we’re doing.  They are to step aside, allowing us access to “our place” while they retreat to theirs.

Looked at in the above way, rhetorics are strategies for confronting and managing people.  Typically, they feature chains of reasoning, that is, idea-based patterns which help us recognize and respond to worldly occurrences.  In the form of an extended argument – as much to persuade ourselves as the people we confront – these ideas and strategies are linked.  One judgment leads smoothly and coherently, at least as we see it, to the next.   

As I developed in my book, Selves, Societies, and Emotions, I think there are five stages in the process of identifying and responding to occurrences. Recognitions made at the initial stages promote later considerations, either energizing them or rendering them irrelevant.  Matters deemed important at the various stages prompt further assessments and, ultimately, lead to behaviors that respond to the condition that’s been defined.       

The five stages are:

1) noticing something

2) evaluating it as good or bad

3) attributing to it a sequence of cause and consequence

4) integrating that situation with self-functioning

5) determining an action-strategy

This decision-making process can happen almost immediately (as when we retreat from a menacing creature).  It can also unfold very deliberately (as when we choose a job or life-partner).  In any case, our decisions are supported by culturally circulated rhetorics about the character and implications of the situation at hand and of our own possibilities within it.

The current essay applies this five-stage model to prejudice.  In what follows, I try to show how prejudice is a culturally supported way of thinking about persons-in-situations.  It is produced – and reproduced - by the sequencing, or chaining, of the five judgments.  It can be deconstructed by questioning and then breaking those links.     

Stage 1: Prejudice as noticing. Humans are categorizing creatures.  We are driven to develop abstract ideas about what the world is “like” and to use these ideas to judge particular occurrences.  Things that happen are placed into various sorts or types.  Those happenings include other people, behaviors, settings we inhabit, and even ourselves.  The categories we use are often adjusted and repositioned as we develop strategies for thinking, feeling, and acting.   

With such typologies in mind, we enter situations with expectations of what we’ll find there.  Some occurrences (like another person’s breathing) are so ordinary that we fail to notice them.  If we do regard them for any period of time, we find that continued awareness boring.  At the other extreme are tremendous departures from our models, such as an unanticipated powerful explosion or indeed, the halting of someone’s breathing.  Between the unnoticed and the overly noticed, between boredom and anxiety, lie many degrees of attentiveness.         

There are, of course, uncountable occurrences that we notice and identify as matters of concern.  What I wish to emphasize here is that our personal expectation systems – imposing categories for experience – are socially and culturally influenced.  Society provides the terms by which we notice and organize the world. Society also encourages us to make these differentiating practices.  Some of the most important categories we use to think about people – age, sex, ethnicity, class, religion, sexual orientation, region, and so forth – are socially imposed.  Whatever our feelings about the appropriateness of those categories may be, most of us rely on them when we describe people to others and when we think about our own relationships to them.   Even more significantly, those markers are linked to other ideas we hold about persons of that “type.”  Once again, society guides us in making those linkages.

These abilities, to establish categories and, on the basis of those boundaries, to decide who is “in” and who is “out,” are surely aspects of human nature.  As anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss stressed, human mentality is about acts of selecting and combining, determining what is similar and what is different. However basic that general process may be, its more specific directions are culturally induced.  Societies steer their members to notice certain aspects of people and to make much (or little) of those aspects.

Most, perhaps all, societies make age and sex distinctions. But the ways in which those characteristics are linked to social roles and life-possibilities vary widely.  Some societies remain fiercely divided on lines of religion and ethnicity.  The United States historically (and sadly) has emphasized racial differences. Great Britain has been keen on social class distinctions.

Prejudice relies on these acts of categorization – and with them on the establishment of fully etched portraits of the occupants of those categories, their behavioral possibilities, and their appropriate life-settings.   More than that, prejudice subordinates the individual to the category. Whatever the individual says and does is interpreted first and foremost within this culturally circulated framework.      

Much of this is “carefully taught,” to recite Oscar Hammerstein’s lyric from "South Pacific."  For that reason, it can be untaught, even to the extent of disregarding divisions that people historically have regarded as central to their own identities. 

It is debatable whether modern societies are moving toward post-racial, color-blind, or otherwise contra-categorical patterns of interaction.  But it seems clear that the first stage in any such process involves cultural de-emphasis of certain socially potent labels.  In some cases – such as religious affiliation, geographic region, and ethnic origin – this softening has already occurred.  But it remains virulent in the case of race, where terms like “white” and “black” (odd choices both considering the flesh tones of the populations so described) continue to be used. 

Whether or not terms of this sort are employed, the more important issue is the way in which these labels are connected to social opportunities.  It is unacceptable for a society pledged to ideals of freedom of expression and equality of opportunity to have rigid, categorical conceptions of persons and restricted life spheres for those so defined.   Prejudice is to be ended on the same terms that it is established, by defusing the terms that are the legacies of traditional societies.

Stage 2: Prejudice as Evaluating. One can argue, and with justice, that clear-cut social differences are one basis of a dynamic, pluralistic society.  Surely, it is not wrong for people to have clear identities that mark them off from others, to recognize kinship with those in similar circumstances, and to pursue life activities distinctive to their group.  Ties of brotherhood and sisterhood, acknowledging common pasts and futures as well as presents, are to be valued.  “Community” can mean these kinds of connections as well as shared geography.

What is wrong is any process that forces these connections on persons and maintains them in their confinement.  It is appropriate perhaps for children to be beholden to their adult caretakers. Like most forms of temporary subordination, this will change.  But adulthood, at least in its modern context, implies choice-making and self-direction.  People’s gathering voluntarily – on the basis of shared experience, knowledge, interest, and commitment – is one thing.  Being herded together on terms provided by others is quite another.

If the key issue of stage 1 is “differentiation,” the key to stage 2 is “inequality.”  In the latter case, diversifying turns into ranking and grading.  People’s identities – and their life-circumstances – are held to be better, or worse.      

Prejudice, it must be stressed, is not just a differentiating but a despoiling. If societies have centers – where the most important resources are found – then victims of prejudice are pushed to the edges, at greatest distance from these.   To the extent that there are social hierarchies, then those same victims are found in the bottom regions.  The first of these cases is usually referred to as marginalization; the second, subordination.  Whatever the designations, it is in the character of prejudice that people should be pushed down and away.

If prejudice were only a pattern of personal disrespect, these difficulties might be manageable.  But ranking is more far-reaching than this.  What matters fundamentally in societies is access to the four great social utilities: wealth, power, prestige, and knowledge.  These are the means by which people acquire the things they desire for happy and productive living.  Those things, so often commodities in our everything-for-sale world, are: food, clothing, housing, healthcare, education, recreation, security, justice before the law, family stability, and self-esteem.  To experience prejudice is find oneself at a distance from the things that other people have.   In that sense, the victim is not “normal.”          

It is not presumed here that societies will ever be entirely egalitarian in the ways they distribute valued resources.  Individuals themselves differ – in terms of interest, talent, training, and commitment.  Societies need to cultivate and reward organizational leaders and highly trained experts.   It is not improper that allocation systems should reflect these concerns.  What is improper is any process that restricts, categorically and rigidly, the range of opportunities available to persons.             

We dismantle prejudice when we make it abnormal to have these filtering processes in place.  Opportunity does not “begin” when a job or school opening is listed.  Equality of treatment is not equivalent to everyone’s being able to apply for those positions.  Instead, the deeper implications of society’ system of graded placements must be assessed.  Confronting inequality means confronting the earliest, and most basic, forms of personal and family stability             

Stage 3: Prejudice as attributing causation.  Ordinary existence involves endless acts of noticing things, calling them by the names we’ve been taught, and declaring them to be good or bad.  But, oftentimes, we are more curious than that.  We want to know why these events are happening and what their likely outcomes will be.  Only after we’ve reached that conclusion can we decide to address the thing in question – or rest easy, knowing that matters are moving forward as (we believe) they should.

Stage 3 centers on this question of what caused the condition at hand – and what its intentions might be. Commonly, this means apportioning credit and blame.

All of us have our theories of how the world works, with different accounts produced for different situations.  Because that subject is so complicated, only a few comments will be offered here.  The first of these is that we seem readier to blame than to grant credit.  That is, we are more attentive to “problems” – even would-be problems – than to things that are going as they should.  Secondly, and not at all surprisingly, we are gentler in our interpretations of misdoings by people we care about than of those committed by strangers, and especially by those marginalized as “others.” 

This process reaches extreme proportions when we evaluate our own activities, at least for those of us who maintain a generally positive self-concept.  When we slip on an icy sidewalk, find a parking ticket on our windshield, or are diagnosed with a chronic health condition, we struggle hard to blame the situation, the “system,” or someone who is out to get us.  When others encounter the same problems, we are more likely to attribute these to their own character failures.  Third and finally, we find a certain satisfaction in attributing the cause of our own difficulty to other persons – a vile tow truck operator, aggressive police officer, or inattentive doctor.  This gives us a more tangible focus for our feelings.

Such issues were gathered together by sociologist William Ryan who claimed in an often reproduced essay that we frequently “blame the victim.”  When others find themselves in difficulty – a young woman is raped outside a nightclub, a poor person is found dead on a sidewalk, a teenager drops out of school – we are quick to emphasize their own role in what occurred.  It is ordinary for us to ask: What were they doing there anyway?”  In this process, we are encouraged by the individualist mythology of our own society, which directs us to personal, even psychological, interpretations of behavior.  Not excluded from those explanations are claims that the perpetrator was at the time of the happening drunk, drugged-up, sexually consumed, unreasonably angry, or otherwise out of control. These accounts are complemented by assignations of character: laziness, habitual inattention, immorality, and cunning criminality.  Sometimes – when it is very difficult to comprehend what happened – we mark our suspect as insane.

Prejudice relies on explanations of this sort.  By such logic, good things happen, appropriately, to good people (that is, “people like us”).  Bad things happen to bad people (“them”).  Mostly, people receive what life-rewards they’ve earned.  Sometimes, of course, bad things do happen to good people; but these are thought be caused by bad people.  That is, they occur because the two worlds have been allowed to intersect.  Better to keep the bad people away.

Doubtless, many rely on such visions of good and bad, worthwhile and worthless, saved and damned.  The world is populated by nuts, sluts, and perverts.  Determining which individuals belong to which categories is an often difficult process.  A much easier route then is simply to associate these qualities with vast categories of people, said to perpetuate what are seen as “styles” of living.  Once again, prejudice depends on these easy generalizations.                          

Most of us are quite aware of the role of personal motives – and yes, character – in what occurs.  We acknowledge that we should take responsibility for the acts we commit, responsibility not only for ourselves but for others as well. This level of commitment – directed both to ourselves and others – does not excuse us from the task of making wider inquiries into the quite different conditions of other people’s lives and, beyond that, into the ways that these are set up or “structured” to make a certain range of behaviors more plausible, even reasonable, in those particular contexts.

To fully consider issue 3 then – our own processes of causal attribution – is to confront the role of “stratification” in societies.  Attributing credit and blame fairly means assessing the complicated conditions within which people live.  There are many different kinds and levels of causes – and consequences.  For that reason, “equity” – as treatment that takes into account personal circumstances - is perhaps a better goal than equality.  And none of us should allow that commitment to fairness to be overridden by pre-established categorical restrictions.

Stage 4: Prejudice as self-integration.  All of us analyze situations – and the people within them – in the above ways.  But many times, that analysis feels distant and relatively neutral in its impact.  Who has not read in the newspaper of some atrocity committed here or abroad, mumbled disapproval, revisited some rhetoric of blame, and then taken another drink of coffee and turned the page?  That is to say, some events feel more important or “salient” to us than others.

Arguably, we are most affected by conditions perceived as challenges to more important aspects of our self-identity.  Here “self” means not only ourselves as individuals but also as “we’s,” that is, a participants in communities of other people we care about.  Sometimes, we deem something important because it threatens to intrude on “me” and “us,” the statuses we hold as objects in the schemes of others.  So we fear the robber with the gun or the boss who summons us into the office.  But we are also affected as subjects, that is, as “I’s” and “we’s” who hold tightly to certain ways of seeing the world and acting within it.  We can be threatened - or conversely, feel supported - in this other, more general sense.

What reader is not familiar with the rhetorics of prejudicial thinking described above?  We know their terms and implications well enough.  What distinguishes prejudiced people – and again, all of us in our displays of prejudice – is the readiness to declare that the occurrences at hand affect them personally and, much more precisely, that these effects will be negative.  After all, prejudice is primarily a hostile or defensive strategy, put into action when someone feels their status-security is threatened.

Sometimes, those insecurities are linked to fairly direct conditions.  A working class person may fear the integration of neighborhoods, schools, jobs, and other settings by individuals perceived to be different.  Will those changes be associated with diminished life-prospects for the currently established group?  It is easy for the prosperous, sheltered classes to scoff at such concerns.  But most people build their lives and relationships through years of hard work, and it is difficult to think of this being challenged – or to acknowledge that the newcomers are fundamentally the same as those who have already found their places.

Less defensible, if equally understandable, are threats to the “I.”  All of us have our systems of belief and value, established and tested through years of personal experience and social learning.  Prejudicial beliefs commonly are one part of this.  Identity itself can be founded on the possession of such beliefs.  This tangle of avowals and justifications gives logical support to the view that the holder belongs above others in the great chain-of-being.  Pointedly, the more comfortable classes are not immune to such thinking.  Indeed, they have more reason to justify their social placement – and why they should be allowed to keep their high standing of wealth, power, and privilege – than those situated below.   So prejudice thrives here too.  Everyone wants to believe that they deserve to be at least as high as their current status.  The sad counterpart is the view that others deserve no higher than what they have now.

Fully loaded in this fashion, prejudice expresses itself under conditions of perceived threat.  How dare “those people” challenge my life-prospects, identity, and value system?  Stopping prejudice at this point involves the not insubstantial process of showing that this reasoning is ill-founded, that the self can be founded on more expansive and generous terms.  Let us not pretend that a few lectures or inspirational videos will do the trick.  Ultimately, perceptions of threat are defused by people’s committing to shared projects under relatively equal and open terms.  They are made possible by societal leadership that honors and rewards that kind of sharing.

Stage 5: Prejudice as orienting for action.  Will prejudice express itself in behavior?  Even persons energized by the above concerns may not act out their judgments.  Whether they do depends on certain factors, all involving “readings” of the situation at hand.

One of these factors is our interpretation of our own character and capabilities.  Some people are, and understand themselves to be, aggressive, highly principled (even if those principles are ill-founded), and iron-willed.  They feel confident in their abilities to dominate a situation by coercion, insinuation, and (if necessary) physical force.  Prejudice is often the way of the bully.

Of course, bullies pick their victims selectively.  Some people are recognized, often publicly, to be safe targets.  We believe they will not fight and, if they do, that their assertions will be inconsequential.  And it helps dramatically if the bully knows that he has “back-up” (from conniving friends to complacent local officials) that the victim lacks.  Power does not exist in isolation.  It expresses a superiority that an aggressor feels toward certain groups and not toward others.

A third factor is the situation.  Some settings provide opportunities for deviant or dangerous acts that would not be permitted elsewhere.  People race their cars on deserted roads, cheat on their spouses in seemingly anonymous motels, and assault their intimate companions in the sanctity of home.  Always, there is always the calculation: “Can I get away with this here?”   For such reasons, prejudice luxuriates in the darkened alley, the edges of the bonfire’s circle.

Finally, take note of the act that is being planned.  Am I simply planning to snub someone, to withhold information from them, or to cleverly demean them with some story or joke?  Will my aggression be more direct – perhaps a haughty look, a symbol shoved in their face, or an insinuating remark?  Will I up the ante by calling them out for some misdeed, real or imagined, that they’ve committed and attribute this to the category they belong to.  Will the symbolic aggression move to more physical forms?  Am I planning to commit – or instead omit – a behavior that deviates from my usual treatment of others?  There are, after all, many ways of assaulting a person, of knocking them back or slowing their pace.  A few of these are open declarations of hostility, but in many others the real intent may be hidden or denied.  At any rate, most of us measure our threats carefully.

In such a fashion, we contemplate action-plans.  In some cases, we believe the “other” is too strong or too firmly established in his territory.  Then “fear” – and fear-based action – may be the outcome of those deliberations.  Alternately, we may determine that no action is the better plan.  We are, like animals playing dead, “resigned” to passivity.  Perhaps, the “other” will ignore us or pass us by.  Regardless, we cannot confront them as we’d like for we would surely “get in trouble” or find that the situation suddenly moves out of control.

Last, and most important perhaps, is the path of “anger.”  Anger combines animosity with confidence.  Not infrequently, anger feels good.  It acquires a special strength when we deem it to be “righteous,” that is, when we load it with judgments that the action we plan is both reasonable and morally correct. And almost always there are intensive technical considerations as well; for we want to do the most damage we can with the least damage to ourselves.

Once again, prejudice is the way of the bully.  It is customarily enveloped by ideas that the perpetrator is right and others are wrong.  The victim is thought to deserve whatever he or she gets.  As in the other stages, prejudice-based action is encouraged when there are prominent cultural rhetorics about the acceptability of that action – hitting one’s wife or child, uttering a racial slur, telling (or laughing at) an off-color joke, denying entrance to someone because they “wouldn’t fit in,” and so forth.  People gain confidence when they know that others like them are also performing the actions in question – and when there is little support for the person being offended.

Civil rights leaders are sometimes asked which pattern is more important to eliminate - prejudice or discrimination.  Usually, they answer “discrimination.”  Prejudice, even as the arsenal of weaponry that I’ve depicted here, is indeed problematic for cultures, societies, and persons.  Its rhetorics are a foundation for a great range of hostile actions.  It works itself deeply into people’s understandings of who they are and what they can do.  Nevertheless, it is not as harmful as the actual behaviors that restrict the opportunities of the millions who are the targets of these publicly circulated ideas and images. 

It may be people’s right to harbor rigid, aggressive categorical views and to build their self-concepts on invidious terms.  Such is one cost of a putatively “free” society.  But it is no one’s right to openly assault or insult others on the basis of these narrow views.  Prejudicial resources must be deconstructed at all the five stages of judgment – and shown to be defective as a framework for living in a civil society.  But confronting this final stage – when ideas become actions - is the most crucial commitment of all.     


Burke, Kenneth (1969). A Rhetoric of Motives.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Henricks, Thomas (2012). Selves, Societies, and Emotions: Understanding the Pathways of Experience.  Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

Levi-Strauss, Claude (1967). Structural Anthropology. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor.

Ryan, William (1976). Blaming the Victim. New York: Vintage.

Be sure to read the following responses to this post by our bloggers:

More Posts