Power, Perception And Prejudice

~ Carolyn J. Foster, Faith in Community Coordinator

Terry Goodkind, best selling science fiction and fantasy writer said, “Reality is irrelevant,  perception is everything”. This is certainly true in light of recent events of racial profiling and perceptions of power and prejudice that has dominated our consciousness of the last few weeks. Reality is irrelevant when the perception of “offender” is assigned to someone simply because of who a person is or how one looks. Our country has a long history of assigning power to some people because of identity and denying others for the same reason. Racism is defined as power coupled with racial prejudice. The possession of power -social, institutional and systemic – was assigned to a particular group of people in this country long ago.

The reality is for some people this country was methodically designed for them. Cities and towns, neighborhoods and communities, schools and places of worship, recreational facilities and economic systems were created to favor them and people who looked like them. The media portrayed people like them as having authority and great respect. Images of goodness and purity depicted in their religious books looked like them. They were taught in school about the great accomplishments of people who looked like them. Laws were written and public policies and practices were enacted to lock them into power and privileges and lock others out. Standards were set with them in mind and considered the norm. People who did not look like them, whose beliefs, values or social norms did not align with these standards, were subjected to great scrutiny, suspicion, and culpability.

Over time, these people became blinded by their power and privilege. Some people in this group believed the perception that they were on top, everyone else was on the bottom and this gave them a sense superiority, security and great freedom. Some were not conscious of the privilege or that came to them by virtue of their racial identity. Neither were they aware of unconscious prejudice that they held about the people in the other group. But true freedom is the absence of oppression. They did not see the chains of oppression that hindered them from true fellowship with people who were outside their world. What they learned about people on the outside came from the media and it shaped their actions and attitudes and made them afraid. So they stayed in their world, fenced in and tied to their perceptions.

Life was harsh for the people who lived on the outside. Some of them internalized the opinions of the people on the inside as if they were true. On the other hand, there were some who were able to function on the inside by pretending. They learned that “perception is everything” so they wore masks and hid who they really were and portrayed themselves as people for whom the country was built. They danced delicately between the two worlds. When they had their masks on, they too developed a sense of superiority, security and freedom, at least transitorily.

Furthermore, there were some people in this same group, for whom the mask did not fit. They could not pretend to be on the inside. These people were subjected to the full weight of scrutiny, suspicion and culpability. Consequently, they began to believe the perception that they were not good enough, smart enough, or respectable enough. Some in this group became over-achievers in order to measure up, but some realized they never could… Feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness overwhelmed them. They criticized and placed unrealistic expectations on other people in their own group. They developed patterns of self-hate and low self-esteem.

Increasingly, angry feelings produced violent behavior against their own group. Freedom is the absence of oppression. They were not free. They, too, were fenced in and tied to their perceptions of themselves as dictated by the group on the inside. Eventually, the country passed laws to emancipate people who were on the outside and much work has been done to dismantle institutional racism in an effort to level the playing field. But “reality is irrelevant, perception is everything.” Yes, there are laws protecting people against unfair housing practices, unequal educational opportunities, and prejudicial hiring practices. But what is there to prevent people from being shunned by their neighbors once they move in, or treated like a token in the classroom or in the workplace. Institutional racism has been imposed upon all of us, controlling our thoughts, feeling, attitudes and behaviors toward the other, and keeps us all oppressed.

The emancipation of the soul of an individual is still a work to be done by people on both sides. True freedom is the absence of oppression. Until that day when we can all say the words made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!”, we will all be in need of emancipation of our soul and in search of that freedom. Then we will all be free indeed.