The psychology of prejudice

With last summer’s pushback controversy stoking the flames of xenophobia towards African migrants, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s Freedom Day speech appeared to take a slightly different tack. 

Prejudice served our ancestors distinguish friend from foe when resources were scarce, particularly racial prejudice. The downside is that individuals may, psychologically speaking, experience threats where none exist. Photo: Ray Attard/Mediatoday
Prejudice served our ancestors distinguish friend from foe when resources were scarce, particularly racial prejudice. The downside is that individuals may, psychologically speaking, experience threats where none exist. Photo: Ray Attard/Mediatoday

Expressing a commitment to fight the detention of child migrants, Muscat also said efforts should be made to further integrate migrants into everyday Maltese society (adding, however, that this should happen in “manageable” numbers). Calling on all citizens to “respect diversity”, Muscat claimed that “the fight against prejudice is yet to be won”.

Newly-instated President of Malta Marie Louise Coleiro Preca echoed much of the same sentiments in her first address to the nation as president last Friday, when she said that “we must understand the importance of diversity and multi-culturalism”, while also saying that “inclusivity, tolerance and diversity” will be cornerstones of her presidency. 

Much is of course made of the economic and social impact of migration, but perhaps battling prejudice demands for us to look at the psychological impact of being faced with an influx of irregular migrants. An inability to view African migrants as fully-fledged human beings, some psychologists argue, is one of the key reasons why prejudice towards them still remains rampant on the island. 

Dr Gordon Sammut, lecturer in Social Psychology at the University of Malta, acknowledges that while prejudice may have served a positive function in our early development as human beings, in present times it tends to run the risk of actually distorting our perception of the social world around us.

“Prejudice has served our ancestors distinguish friend from foe during our evolutionary past at times when resources were scarce, particularly racial prejudice. This is why prejudice is often justified by claims regarding limited resources, or their taking what is ours,” Sammut says, adding however that the “downside to prejudice” is “that individuals may, psychologically speaking, experience threats where none exist. Consequently, in today’s world, it often stands in the way of positive interpersonal and intergroup relations”.

According to Sammut, an important way of dealing with prejudice would be to – ideally – nip it in the bud. Describing prejudice as a “psychological barrier” which prevents people from different cultures to find common (social) ground, Sammut says that, “individuals and institutions should be prevented from translating prejudice into action, that is, discrimination. Legislation and policy can be effective in this regard”.

Similarly, Simon Bradford (Brunel University) and Marilyn Clark (University of Malta) argued in a paper – published by the Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies and entitled ‘Strangers on the Shore: Sub-Saharan African “Irregular” Migrants in Malta’ – that problems start once the migrant is viewed as a negative factor. 

“When the ‘stranger’ archetype is embraced or acknowledged, significant and positive cultural transformations can occur. When denied, negative outcomes transpire, and Maltese political nationalism has already attempted to exploit and heighten current anxieties”.

These anxieties would be made worse by the tendency to not view African migrants as fully-fledged human beings. Quoting from an interview with an African migrant in Malta, Bradford and Clarke zoom in on this problem. 

“We got schools, cinemas, roads, and big buildings in my country, sometimes much more developed than Malta, but the people here know nothing, they think we live on trees or in the jungle…”

Bradford and Clarke go so far as to say that this view promotes the long-held view of Africa as a “heart of darkness”, taking their cue from the classic Joseph Conrad novel of the same name which, focusing on Belgian colonialism in the Congo, presents Africa as an unambiguously primitive and threatening place.

The refusal to see migrants as anything other than “objects” renders any real connection with them impossible – a fact exacerbated by Malta’s exclusionist detention policy. Sammut credits this as being yet another way in which prejudice continues to spread on the island, and suggests that “positive contact” between migrants and the Maltese would help stem the flow of racism and intolerance, especially if it’s accompanied by an exposure to the foreigners’ culture.

“Where is the local Arab souk? How does the local Muslim community celebrate the birth of the Prophet? We want others to celebrate with us, we are proud of the activities of Maltese diasporas abroad, from selling pastizzi in Sydney, to the festa tal-Vitorja in Westminster, London, and elsewhere. We are proud that our migrants ‘baqghu Maltin’. And rightly so. 

“In these countries, anywhere the Maltese were allowed to be Maltese and live in line with their dictates, they went on to contribute in no small measure to the societies that hosted them. For the same reason, local Maltese should find ways to tap the potential of non-dominant groups and celebrate diversity amongst themselves,” Sammut says.

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