The virus of prejudice

In the short story titled Misjudged by Cassie Jammie, three youngsters named Scarlett, Cash and Greyson are considered children of bad reputation. Parents advised their children not to have anything to do with them. In fact the whole town looked at them with suspicion and kept away from them.

Often, the three friends would buy canned soup from a grocery shop in the town and go to the deep forest. People assumed that they lived on this canned food.

One day they happened to meet Tommy, the ten-year-old guy, who felt dejected because his parents were fighting. The three friends took Tommy for a stroll. Greyson asked Tommy, “Aren’t you scared of us?” Tommy eyed them suspiciously and said, “Everyone says you’re bad.” “We’re well aware of our reputation,” scoffed Scarlett. “Some people just like to make assumptions about people before they get to know them.”

The three friends bought Tommy a cone of chocolate ice-cream which he enjoyed to the full. They then took him to the forest where their friend Sam, a homeless man, and a few others lived. They offered them the canned soup and told Tommy, “He’s a homeless dude that lives in the forest with a few others. We bring them a few soup cans once a week. We like to make sure they have something to eat.”

Finally, Tommy tells them, “Everyone thinks you’re bad, but you’re not!”

The world in our time is fighting against a dreadful virus called Covid-19. But even more dreadful and destructive is the virus of prejudice that wrongly judges, condemns, segregates, and discriminates against persons and groups. The story of the three friends throws light on this virus and its deadly consequences in today’s society.

Prejudice according to the Cambridge Dictionary is “an unfair and unreasonable opinion or feeling, especially when formed without enough thought or knowledge.” People whip up prejudicial statements against persons or groups based on their place of origin, race, colour, language, financial status, social standing, religious affiliation, family background, etc. Time and again the prejudicial virus lurking beneath the surface makes its ugly appearance. Often prejudices blind people to the real facts about persons, groups and situations.

The novel Corona virus was turning out to be a global pandemic that threatened almost every corner of the world. Two highly-respected French doctors were discussing on live television the potential new treatment for Covid-19. One of them said, “If I can be provocative, shouldn’t we do this study in Africa where there are no masks, no treatment, no intensive care? A bit like we did in some studies on AIDS. We tried things on prostitutes because they are highly exposed and do not protect themselves.” The other doctor immediately agreed to the atrocious suggestion saying, “We will in fact think seriously about it.”

Several persons, including officials from World Health Organization (WHO) and soccer players of African origin came out expressing their outrage at the two medicos.

The suggestion of the two doctors simply reveals the type of white supremacy which considers that the black and less-developed Africa can be used as a huge laboratory for testing. It amounted to nothing less than the virus of prejudice that manifested in the form of deep-rooted racism and lack of human dignity.

One of the consequences of the virus of prejudice is discrimination resulting from insufficient knowledge or total ignorance of the situation. In some towns in northern India shop owners refuse to allow medical students and nurses to buy food stuff from their shops because they think that these people are potential carriers of the corona virus. They are subjected to discrimination and even harassment. One young medical student laments, “These shop owners forget that we are people in the frontline of duty, risking our lives to save people from the clutches of the pandemic.”

A young girl from North East India, studying in New Delhi, was spat upon by a man riding a scooter, calling her ‘Corona’. The reason for such abhorrent behaviour was that the helpless girl looked Chinese! But not just her, many people from the North East have shared stories of discrimination amid the Corona virus outbreak. One social media user said: “It is a double crisis for us, first battle with the virus and then with the societal virus of racism!” In Kolkata, several north eastern students have been forced to leave their accommodation in the city. They have been abused as ‘chinkis’ and ‘bat-eating tribe’.

Such mentality can even affect the authorities. Recently, nine Naga youths were forced to spend 24 hours in quarantine in Gujarat despite having no symptoms of Corona virus or any history of international travel or contact with a Covid-19 patient. They were allegedly forced into quarantine, as someone made a call to the police about ‘Chinese people’ working in an office. In Punjab, students from the North East had to resort to Facebook to explain their ordeal: “People are calling us names like ‘Corona virus’. We are even denied places to stay on rent because many think we are from China.”

The best way to eradicate the virus of prejudice is to educate ourselves about our identity as human beings, and not as members of some ethnic or racial groups. All of us together form the one human family; there is no ‘we vs they’ or ‘us vs them’. Real education should focus on the richness of our diversity rather than the supremacy of some groups over some others.

Sudha Murthy, Chairperson of Infosys Foundation, in her book Three Thousand Stitches, relates her experience of being a victim of prejudice at London’s Heathrow Airport: “Go and stand in the economy class queue. This line is for business class travellers,” a woman told Ms Murthy as she was standing in queue to be checked in. She says she was wearing salwar kameez which made her a ‘misfit’ for business class according to that woman. Murthy later gave the woman a piece of her mind for calling her ‘cattle class’: “Class does not mean huge possession of money. Mother Teresa was a classy woman. So is Manjula Bhargava, a great mathematician of Indian origin. The concept that you automatically gain class by acquiring money is an outdated thought process.”

When Jesus was preaching in a synagogue at Nazareth, many who heard him were amazed. But some others were very prejudiced that they remarked, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers? Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” They would not recognize the real power that was in Jesus nor would they hear the real wisdom with which he preached. They rejected him because they thought that he was merely ‘a carpenter’s son’. Jesus had to move out of that town saying, “A prophet is not without honour except in his own country and in his own house” (Matthew 13:58).

The best way to eradicate the virus of prejudice is to educate ourselves about our identity as human beings, and not as members of some ethnic or racial groups. All of us together form the one human family; there is no ‘we vs they’ or ‘us vs them’. Real education should focus on the richness of our diversity rather than the supremacy of some groups over some others.

Another way to get rid of prejudice is to cultivate healthy interpersonal relationships. When we freely relate with people of various ethnic, social, racial and religious groups, there is no room for prejudice. Many of our pre-conceived ideas will dissolve and disappear when we know persons and their goodness more closely. Parents, teachers and elders can play significant role in encouraging young children to relate with and befriend their peers belonging to different ethnic, racial, religious and social groups. They are thus helped to grow up with an open and inclusive mindset, knowing that all are part of the same human family.

Scarlett makes a significant statement in the story Misjudged: “Some people just like to make assumptions about people before they get to know them.” But knowing their innocence and benevolent nature, Tommy, the new-found friend, retorted, “Everyone said you’re bad; but you’re not!”

Joe Eruppakkatt
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Joe Eruppakkatt

Joe Eruppakkatt, a former editor for ST PAULS Publications and The Teenager Today, has been actively involved in the field of print media in India, the U.S., Great Britain and Nigeria. He is currently working for ST PAULS, New Delhi.