Beware of subtle prejudices

Small details are by far the most important (Sherlock Holmes).

A manifest and externalized prejudice is as dangerous as its latent version that hides behind a mask of apparent openness and benevolence. Racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice are often recognizable in their latent form only by paying attention to detail.

  1. First working lunch in Holland: one of my colleagues, just learned of my southern origins, doesn’t think twice about calling me a “mafiosa”. Blatant prejudice.
  2. Coffee break: I am joking with my Chinese colleague about their complicated calendar (he himself has difficulty associating years and animals and laughs at it), when a Dutch colleague promptly intervenes, claiming that the Chinese calendar is so beautiful and that ours is no better (statement I never uttered). Subtle prejudice.

When we relate to an individual as we would with anyone else, in our behavior we draw from all our emotional sphere, that is, we are simply ourselves. If, on the other hand, we deal with a certain category of individuals (foreigners, women, etc.) with the “surgeon’s hands”, carefully filtering our phrases and attitudes, then we are almost certainly hiding our true (pre-)judgments behind the mask of open and friendly people who do not represent us at all. Even when in good faith, “surgeon’s hands” do more harm than good.


One of the reasons why prejudices, in their latent form, are as dangerous as manifest ones (if not more so) is that those affected by such biases are convinced that they are immune from them. This is well demonstrated by this 1997 article, which proves the correlation between the two forms of prejudice by analyzing the results of questionnaires on immigrants submitted to people from different Northern European countries.

The common ingredient in all 10 of the SUBTLE PREJUDICE items is their covertness — their ostensibly nonprejudicial character. Indeed, as Kovel (1970) argues, the prejudicial nature of subtle prejudice is typically hidden from those who adopt these beliefs. This key ingredient is precisely what disturbs critics. Yet it is how this modem form of prejudice evades proscriptive norms against blatant expressions of intergroup prejudice. The subtle items are socially acceptable ways to express prejudice. Not perceived as revealing bias, subtle prejudice slips in under antiblatant prejudice norms. [Meertens and Pettigrew (1997)].

And it is still a detail that makes everything much more interesting. In the article by Meertens and Pettigrew, scrolling further down, the authors quote an Italian study (“Prejudice and political affiliation: right and left in the face of immigration from the third world” [Arcuri and Boca (1996)]), which relates prejudice and political affiliation. When one analyses the blatant prejudice towards immigrants from North Africa, the divergence between left and right voters is substantial. But when it is the subtle prejudice to be measured (with questions that can bring out the detail of the interviewed’s belief), the difference between the two types of voters ceases to be significant. The quoted article was published in 1996, how much things have changed in 2018?

The subtle prejudice is a sneaky disease. To defeat it, it must first of all be recognized. In this, details play a crucial role.

📊 Researcher in Geophysics || ✍️ Passionate about writing

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