A toolkit for spotting prejudice

Have you ever read something and thought, “that’s prejudiced”, but without the ability to put your finger on exactly how? There are speeches and writings and quotes which seem sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic or transphobic, yet there is no exact quote that can be pulled out and easily called out for what it is.

This is because there are subtle ways of using language, barely perceptible, which reflect stereotyping and prejudice. In spotting these, one can call out the speaker or writer and address the grubby prejudice that lies beneath.

Symbolic racism

Following the Civil Rights movement and the overturning of the openly bigoted Jim Crow laws, racism in the United States took a different form: symbolic racism. Symbolic racism is characterised by three markers: a belief that minorities are being too demanding, resentment about special favours for minorities and denial of continuing discrimination. This is probably one of the easiest forms of subtle prejudice to spot, and it applies far beyond its original conception in “modern racism” towards African Americans. Take, for example, the headline of this [clean linked] Daily Express article: “NOW MUSLIMS DEMAND FULL SHARIA LAW“. Ignoring the fact that the article is patently untrue waffle, the headline alone displays a belief that Muslims are too demanding with the phrase “demand” and the qualifier “now”. Apparently those pesky Muslims are constantly making demands.

For an example of belief in special favours, one needs to look no further than cries of “reverse racism” or “reverse sexism”. It displays an alarming resentment for a push towards equality, constructed as a “special favour”. It abounds in discourse surrounding maternity leave and women-only spaces. It can also be seen in the standard right-wing battle cry that the outgroup du jour has more human rights than they do, presumably because of political correctness gone mad.

Denial of continuing discrimination is also rife. The justification goes that nominally, the law provides equality in the form of anti-discrimination laws (another “special favour” and often seen as an unreasonable demand). Therefore, everything is magically non-discriminatory. This phenomenon has been noticed by many, and is often seen for what it is. I will comment no further, therefore, and direct you to Privilege Denying Dude, which makes me smile.

Dehumanising language

Dehumanisation is an attempt to make a person or group of people appear less human by taking away their individuality. Much of the research into dehumanisation has focused on genocidal propaganda, where it is often fairly easy to spot: take, for example, this famous Nazi children’s book which compares Jews to a poisonous fungus, or use of the word “cockroach” to describe enemy combatants in the Rwandan genocide, or Morrissey’s description of Chinese people as “a subspecies“. The aim of dehumanisation is to turn an outgroup from people to a homogenous, subhuman mass, often by likening them to animals or machines.

As with symbolic racism, use of dehumanising language is often more subtle than describing every single person in the world’s most populous country as members of a subspecies. For example, sexual objectification of women is a form of dehumanisation: taking away the humanity and individuality of a woman and turning her into a pair of tits and a willingness to fuck. Words like “cougar” and “bitch” are also inherently dehumanising, with overt comparisons of a person to an animal. Concern about birth rates in immigration populations is also usually dehumanising. The word “breeding” invariably crops up somewhere.

A classic example of subtle, throwaway use of dehumanising language comes from the “bigoted woman” scandal. In a public event, an audience member asked Gordon Brown the question “all these eastern European what are coming in, where are they flocking from?”. Gordon Brown was later recorded bemoaning the fact that he had to answer a question from a “bigoted woman”. Notwithstanding the fact that the question is patently easy to answer–Eastern Europeans are clearly coming from Eastern Europe, the question did contain dehumanising language. The word “flocking” is typically applied to birds, usually migrating birds. It casts migrants as a mass of flapping creatures, rather than human beings. Much as it pains me to say it, I agree with Gordon Brown. The question reflected a degree of prejudice. She probably was a bigoted woman.

The Linguistic Intergroup Bias

Perhaps you have read through the piece, and you have managed to find none of the markers of symbolic prejudice, nor any language which ascribes unhuman characteristics to people? Look at the use of verbs.

The Linguistic Intergroup Bias is well-documented effect and crops up in the way people use words to describe an event. Consider two fictional scenarios: A, where a black man (Albert) punches a white man (Bob) and B, where Albert rescues Bob from a fire.

  1. Concrete verbs: A, Albert hit Bob; B, Albert rescued Bob
  2. Interpretive action verbs: A, Albert hurt Bob; B, Albert helped Bob
  3. State verbs: A, Albert hates Bob; B, Albert likes Bob
  4. General dispositional adjectives: A, Albert is violent; B, Albert is heroic

According to this model, were a white person to describe these scenarios, in scenario A, which reflects negatively on Albert, the describer would be more likely to use the more abstract types of description. To describe scenario B, which reflects positively on Albert, the white describer would be more likely to use the more concrete forms of description. If a black person were to describe the two scenarios the opposite is more likely to be true: more concrete verbs to describe the negative incident; more abstract for the positive incident.

The effect of this use of language is to imply how frequently such behaviour occurs: when one uses concrete verbs, it makes the behaviour seem as though it were a one-off. At a more abstract level, the behaviour seems to be something that person always does. As the different levels of abstraction vary by whether one is describing a member of the ingroup or a member of the outgroup, there is clearly an element of stereotyping going on here. It is thought that the effect emerges due to various expectations: because of the stereotype white people hold that black people are violent, they will use language that reflects this. There is also some evidence to show that these levels language use can help maintain stereotypes.

Furthermore, one [unfortunately paywalled] study noted that people who were more likely to use the Linguistic Intergroup Bias were also more likely to display implicit prejudice towards women or black people. While the participants did not express overt racism, they were more threatened by pictures of black faces. This experiment shows that this particular linguistic trick is related to prejudice. When reading a newspaper article or listening to a slightly racist friend speak, pay attention to the verbs they are using. It is a barely-perceptible marker of prejudice.


Prejudice is still going strong, but it is masked in linguistic gymnastics. When people deny discrimination against trans people or complain about a flock of immigrants, when they talk about unreasonable feminist demands or describe a disabled benefit claimant without using a single verb, they are being prejudiced. There is a vast body of research beneath this. From now on, if you do not appreciate their tone, you can call them out.

26 thoughts on “A toolkit for spotting prejudice”

  1. What is transphobic? Something ending in a phobic would imply fear of and I am certainly not afraid of the colour, race or origin of anyone.

  2. Andrew, ‘phobic’ can apply as equally to an irrational dislike or aversion to something or someone as it can a fear, though I’d say the two are linked.

    This was another really interesting post. I especially liked you calling out Gillian Duffy as bigoted. I always felt sorry for Brown over that as he clearly had a point!

    1. I’d have liked it if, rather than apologise, go up to her and say, “Mrs Duffy, I was recorded saying in private that you are a bigot. I am sorry I failed to say it to your face. Mrs Duffy, you are a bigot.”

  3. Great piece! Recently, I’ve heard a growing number of people utter the likes of: “No, I couldn’t – I’m too middle class to say! ” Your thoughts on this appreciated.

    1. Argh. The implicit classism in that statement is horrifying. It denotes a very unpleasant view of working class people as uncouth and openly bigoted, with people who are “too middle class” to express prejudice believing themselves above it. Of course they’re not. I imagine the statement is immediately followed by something covertly prejudiced.

      It is sort of like “I’m not racist, but”, with a classist twist.

      1. Thanks, Stavvers! I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on how to respond to this particular type of classism. A while back, I attempted to challenge a similar comment, and was met with the mocking response, “Oh, dear! Chip on your shoulder?”

  4. Love this post ! I can’t tell you how often I’ve come across all of these three points without being able to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes me uncomfortable.

  5. “Oh, dear! Chip on your shoulder?”
    Wow! I haven’t heard that comment for a long time. It was usually applied to ethnic minorities – as in ‘he’s got a chip on his shoulder because he’s black’ rather than he just got out of bed the wrong side or is just a regular stroppy git. I wonder why certain groups of people are/were reckoned to have chips on their shoulders? What’s the etymology of that?

  6. Excellent article… but i would hate to have you down the pub, banter must be weak.

    And nothing gonna change my love for Mozzer (he said “you can be forgiven for thinking they [Chinese] are sub species” in reaction to the way they treat animals, I am sure this makes little differences to you but it is about context).

    Keep up the good fight.

    1. Actually, my banter is brilliant, it’s just not racist.

      I know exactly the context of Mozzer’s comments. I just happen to think he’s morphed into something of a useless prick. And animals are delicious, yo.

  7. It’s an interesting post, and thank you for bringing social psychology to bear on current issues.

    However, I feel you could have explained the Linguistic intergroup bias better, on a number of levels. The paragraph beginning ‘According to this model, were a white person to…’ could do with greater elaboration, as you have used eight sentences describing two scenarios at the same time. If it was split up it might be easier to read. (FYI I lecture in social psychology, and I got confused!).

    What struck me most though, is while we can see this language everywhere, I feel we are still at a loss as to how to respond to it, once we have identified it. I would particularly like to hear how, for example in relation to the famous Gordon Browne experience, how best we can combat this prejudice. What should he have said to her, to her face?

    I would also prefer, to be perfectly honest, if you specified in that paragraph that you are referring to a ‘white person of some prejudice’ and a ‘black person of some prejudice’ or words to that effect, as otherwise you are tarring all members of those groups with this implicit prejudice!

    1. Psych lecturer! I do like you. At the moment, my brain’s fried on thesis writing so I let the writing slip on the blog, but now I know there’s pros watching, I’ll pull my socks up!

      I quite agree about what to do with these prejudices once identified. I haven’t yet found much in the literature for what can be done in these instances–it’s likely awareness of the bias and education would change it somewhat (as sometimes happens with implicit associations). Any ideas?

  8. Never read so much rubbish in my life. The modern generation struggle to find a single verb for any given situation, let alone manipulate them with any positive and negative connotations. Most racism is born out of ignorance and ignorant people don’t tend to have the wit for this sort of verbal manipulation. Racism is about intent and context, as somebody else pointed out.

    1. You misunderstand.

      While some racist comments are deliberate, most are not, and reflect a subconscious belief, which is much harder to combat, and much more sinister.

      Racism is so ingrained in culture, not just white culture, that it is below conscious thought.

      Racism is about intent? Please. That is a denialist argument itself, and a common one too.

  9. I think this is a very helpful approach.

    A lot of the examples you quote “flocks”, “herds” etc. seem very overt racism to me, and not particularly subtle.

    The linguistic intergroup bias thing sounds very interesting, but I would have found it easier to follow if you had given more examples.

    Also surprised you didn’t mention the rhetoric of “swamping” – a nasty insidious concept that frequently gets used to silence minorities.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.