How to Best Confront and Combat Prejudice

Prejudice occurs in many forms and can have a significant effect on the well-being of those who experience it—including various aspects of physical and mental health. When this occurs, the ripple effect can reach far beyond those who are directly affected. Although eliminating prejudice entirely may not be possible, the good news is there are effective ways by which to confront and combat it.

Defining prejudice

According to Confronting Prejudice: How to Protect Yourself and Help Others, prejudice is “a preconceived, unfair judgement toward a person, group, or identity that is formed without sufficient evidence or reason.” It can dictate how people treat each other, resulting in negative dynamics that may include bias, microaggressions, bigotry, hate in various forms, discrimination, and oppression.

Prejudice can be formed as a result of a stereotype, which is “an oversimplified and widely held standardized idea that is used to describe a person or group.” Stereotypes can fall into several categories:

  • Positive stereotypes—beliefs perceived as favorable qualities for a group.
  • Helpful stereotypes—beliefs which assist people in rapidly responding to situations that are similar to past experiences.
  • Negative stereotypes—beliefs perceived as unfavorable qualities for a group.
  • Harmful stereotypes—beliefs that spur people to respond unfairly or incorrectly to situations because of their perceived similarity to past experiences.

The health effects of prejudice

Experiencing prejudice can have a negative effect on a person’s physical and mental health, potentially contributing to the development of disorders like anxiety and depression. When prejudice influences environmental and societal factors that affect an individual’s well-being—such as access to transportation, education, health care, economic opportunities, and exposure to crime—less privileged groups become disadvantaged. These dynamics can influence health in a variety of ways, both directly and indirectly. For example, research indicates that even the anticipation of prejudice can lead to cardiovascular and psychological stress responses.

These dynamics can have a hand in how a person feels about themselves, too. According to Natasha Thapar-Olmos, PhD, Program Director at OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, “People of marginalized or discriminated groups can develop negative beliefs toward themselves … That gets in the way of all kinds of things—relationships, functioning, recovery.”

Ways to confront prejudice

Since prejudice and discrimination are socially influenced, creating a tolerant environment requires the support of everyone involved. One way to do that is through exposure to people who are different from each other. In fact, research indicates that multicultural experiences could reduce cross-cultural prejudice.

Although it is unlikely that it will ever be eliminated, there are ways to reduce prejudice through effective confrontation and by being an ally to those who experience it.  The following strategies can help:

  • Listen and validate. Actively listen to the person’s story and validate their experience to help you understand that person’s perspective on the event.
  • Intervene in the moment. Consider using the 4 Ds of bystander intervention:
    1. Direct: Step in and address what’s happening directly—but only do so if you feel safe.
    2. Distract: Sidetrack either person in some way.
    3. Delegate: Find someone who can help by providing backup.
    4. Delay: Check in with the person later to see how you can help.
  • Be an ally, advocate, and activist. Find ways in which you can support, speak, and act on behalf of the causes and people who are important to you.

Finally, research supports the fact that communicating directly about these difficult topics can help reduce another person’s bigotry—as long as that is done with empathy and a desire to understand the perspectives of the other person. Thapar-Olmos agrees: “… I think we have to be willing to engage in the discomfort if we’re going to talk about it and try to help other people.”


Alexis Anderson is a senior digital PR coordinator at 2U, Inc. Alexis supports outreach for their school counseling, education, mental health, and occupational therapy programs. Find her on Twitter @HeyLexHey.

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