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The Nature of Prejudice

Alice Martino
Manlius NY USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 38 No. 5, October-November 2002 p. 109.

The Nature of Prejudice is a book that I read 40 years ago. That is a long time past but at least one part of the book remains crystallized in my mind.

Recently, I thought of it while reading an LLL Leader’s account of a family reunion she attended. Among others gathered was a young woman expecting her first child and another nursing her new baby. Unfortunately, the nursing mother had a long list of complaints and nothing good to say about breastfeeding. The Leader must have had every nerve on edge as she felt many eyes on her, all wondering how she would react. Mustering all her skills, she acknowledged how difficult life was just then for the new mother, and expressed the hope that everything would get easier. She also mentioned that breastfeeding had meant a great deal to her and offered to share information with both the breastfeeding and the pregnant woman, if either woman wished.

Gordon Allport, author of The Nature of Prejudice would have been proud of her. Dr. Allport described an experiment designed to discover what type of reply most effectively counters prejudicial remarks. In his experiment, people in public situations heard prejudicial statements about others. Then they were interviewed to determine how they felt about what they had heard. In some cases, people (who were actually trained actors) had argued angrily against the prejudice. When no one opposed the prejudice, listeners were more likely to believe that the remarks were true or that everyone else agreed, and they were more likely to fear speaking out against the prejudice. Not surprisingly, when prejudice was countered, it was less likely to be accepted by listeners. But it didn’t take a strong statement to effectively counter prejudice. Reasoned responses in a calm tone of voice were effective. A mild statement such as, "That hasn’t been my experience," is likely to be as good or better than a lengthy or more vehement argument.

Not long after the family picnic, the Leader learned that the unhappy mother had weaned. Soon afterward, the expectant mother—who had by then given birth—called the Leader. She was able to give the mother support and information while sharing the new mother’s delight in nursing her baby. The Leader was glad that the new mother felt comfortable calling and was enjoying breastfeeding.

Leaders can’t know everything that affects another mother’s decision, even when those mothers are family or friend. In this case, the Leader’s impression was that the pregnant mother attributed the other mother’s distress to that mother’s whole experience, not just to the breastfeeding. At the same time, she had perceived the Leader as understanding and positive. The Leader’s mild statement echoed her own feelings.

Those who’ve taken the first workshop in the Communication Skills Enrichment Series, "Listening from the Heart," may recognize the skills the Leader used. She listened empathetically to the unhappy woman, seeking first to understand her situation and her feelings about it. Then she gently let the others there know that one woman’s experience of breastfeeding was not universal to every woman. The workshop teaches skills for establishing rapport, even with those with whom we disagree—maybe especially with those with whom we disagree. It’s easy to deal with those with whom we have an instant, instinctual understanding. However, Leaders are committed to helping every mother who turns to them for assistance, even those with whom they disagree. When we set aside our own feelings and seek to understand another person’s point of view, we not only demonstrate our interest in her, but also give her the same respect we want for ourselves and for other mothers.

For more information about getting along with people we find difficult, schedule a Communication Skills Enrichment series in your own backyard. Contact the CSE or HRE department coordinator in your area.

Editor’s note: Communication Skills Enrichment (CSE) is the newly renamed Human Relations Enrichment (HRE) program in the Eastern US. Please check with your support person as availability of CSE / HRE may vary between LLL entities.


Allport G. The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1954.

Alice Martino serves as editor of Harvest, the Area Leaders' Letter for New York West, USA, and is a Communication Skills Instructor. Submissions for the "Helping Mothers" column may be sent to Nan Vollette at: 132 Powhatan Pkwy, Hampton, VA 23661 USA, or to vollette at (email).

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