Help Me Overcome My Prejudice
December 12, 2013 12:25 PM   Subscribe

Posting this anonymously, as this is a pretty shameful thing to fess up to. But please bear in mind that I realize this is irrational, that prejudice is born of ignorance, and that I do want to work through it.

OK. So, this all began at the start of the Balkan's War. (Data point: my ethnicity was not involved in the Balkan conflict.) Following events from the US, I was - like I imagine a lot of people were - pretty appalled by things which came to light. This prompted me to read up on the subject a bit more later on, through books and news articles, trying to make sense of the conflict.

It became clear soon enough that some of the bigger questions about the conflict were difficult at best to answer, but that's beside the point. Something happened during this time that didn't become apparent until I moved to Europe, and encountered actual Balkan people.

I have found that when I meet Serbs, I instantly and intensely disliked them. I assure you there is nothing actually wrong with any of them, personally. I would not bring up the war in conversation, but sometimes it gets brought up by someone else. Whenever a Serb starts to talk on the subject, I find my immediate emotional reaction is defensiveness and hostility, though I usually hold my tongue. If I speak up at all, it would be to agree that US response was misguided at best.

So I try not to let on but honestly my internal emotional reaction really bothers me. It is completely irrational and demonstrably false. I remind myself of this, but the reaction remains. I am interacting with them on a daily basis, so this makes things especially tense. I'm at a loss here as to how to get past this, and would deeply appreciate some guidance on how to break this.

Lastly, I want to apologize to any of you reading this who might be Serbian. I neither speak nor act on this bigotry, for what it's worth, and I sincerely hope to put an end to it. Life is too short.

Thank you.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (24 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The best way to rid yourself of prejudice is to continually and consistently expose yourself to people who defy the prejudice. If you have an irrational prejudice regarding the intelligence of black people, follow a couple dozen black professors/astrophysicists/surgeons. If you have an irrational prejudice that southerners are all conservatives, read blogs every day by southern progressives and radicals.

I would seek out people online who completely defy the prejudices you have about Serbians. Add them to your feedly daily read, add them to your twitter, subscribe to their youtube channels, whatever. People as far removed as possible from the traits and situations you have feelings about. Don't look up Serbian war journalists. Look up Serbian bakers and childcare workers.

I'm not Serbian, but I think it's incredibly rare for someone to challenge their prejudices the way you have, and I want to personally thank you. Good luck.
posted by Jairus at 12:34 PM on December 12, 2013 [29 favorites]

Oh, this is no big deal, because you recognize it's irrational and demonstrably false. That's actually a very good sign.

Truth is, we can't always control our thoughts, even when we know our brains are wrong and talking crazy shit. Having sat for hours meditating, trying to get the mind under control, I assure you, it's practically impossible. Only after days of meditating from 5am in the morning to 7pm at night, did I get the barest hint of control. So again, it's difficult and our thoughts tend to scamper around like monkeys.

Thankfully, those irrational thoughts aren't that important. What is important is how we act and what we choose to do with those wild thoughts. Here's the trick: don't pay them much mind. Seriously, it's not a big deal, just a goofy monkey in the animal part of your brain. Luckily you're more than just an animal and have a conscious mind which can analyze and quantify what said monkey brain is doing. When it's being smart, pay attention. When it's being tribal and irrational, ignore. Eventually its gibberish recedes to the background.

So, don't worry too much about it, as that gives those negative thoughts power. If said thoughts continue to fester and pester, then try meditation.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:38 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I would not bring up the war in conversation, but sometimes it gets brought up by someone else. Whenever a Serb starts to talk on the subject, I find my immediate emotional reaction is defensiveness and hostility, though I usually hold my tongue. If I speak up at all, it would be to agree that US response was misguided at best.

Unless your job requires you to engage on this topic, just don't. You're not required to continue any conversation that makes you uncomfortable. Say, "I don't have the depth of experience that you do, so I'd rather not talk about that. How about that [local sports team|local pop culture happening|some other innocuous topic]?"
posted by Etrigan at 12:38 PM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Try to make yourself interact with individuals and with their thoughts. Always make it about your view of that one person. There is no such thing as "the Serbs", or The Anything Else. It's not "irrational," it's just false.
posted by Namlit at 12:42 PM on December 12, 2013 [8 favorites]

Whenever a Serb starts to talk on the subject, I find my immediate emotional reaction is defensiveness and hostility

Respond and "feel" based on what they're saying. In other words, if the Serb is praising the Serbian atrocities, or diminishing them, then you absolutely should have a response that is judgmental.
If the Serb is saddened by the atrocities commited ,then your negative judgment towards him is unwarranted.

Many Jews to this day have prejudices towards Germans given the Holocaust. Just like many Chinese towards Japanese for similar reasons. It is understandable non-ethnic bystanders would also have prejudices due to human sympathy for the victims. Treat each person individually — but don't be hard on yourself for feeling something.
posted by Kruger5 at 12:52 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

OK. So, this all began at the start of the Balkan's War.

It may help to remind yourself that history is complicated - especially in that part of the world - and it didn't begin in the 1990s and that long-held prejudice between Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Slovenians unleashed by the collapse of Yugoslavia lie behind the horrors of the Balkan wars.

Prejudice in general, and not prejudice towards Serbs in particular, is the real enemy. Simply refrain from seeing people as an ethnic group and see them rather as individuals and you will undermine the very roots of your prejudice.
posted by three blind mice at 1:04 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm Serbian and when I first saw this question I felt delighted to be lobbed an AskMe that I could uniquely answer. But truth be told, I don't think I have any insight that is any more helpful than what the other posters have said.

I could generalize about the traits of my countrypeople that have annoyed me, or talk about the incredibly convoluted emotional and intellectual knot that the war is for so many people, or give you a crude and doubtless offensive-to-someone characterization of the different strata of Serb and speculate which ones you're dealing with... but ultimately, I'm not sure how helpful that would be.

I will, though, direct you to something like this. Just remember that for all the people you're meeting who make you gnash your teeth, there are hundreds of thousands who stood for something else. My mother has said some things about the war that might be on par with what you're dealing with, but she was in the streets protesting in the 90s, too. People are complicated.
posted by Aubergine at 1:10 PM on December 12, 2013 [24 favorites]

Researching war atrocities always makes me think of Iris Chang's quote on The Rape of Nanking: civilization is tissue thin. There will never really be a way to make sense of these conflicts; these ruptures of mass violence and genocide seem to be a human feature, not a hallmark of any particular ethnic group or nation, although certain situations (being able to take advantage of colonialism, whatever) increase the odds. A lot of my family was wiped out in the Holocaust and the remaining ones look at the massacres and ghetto in Gaza in horror. You mention the atrocities that US intervention revealed in the former Yugoslavian states but just this morning a US drone attack killed 15 people who were headed to a wedding in Yemen. I have to wonder: is the Balkan conflict the first or only genocide you've really gotten the gory details of? Because these events happen every day, often against the will of citizens of the country or ethnic group committing the atrocities. I really mean that: every day. But there are also, always, people who fight the prevailing mob, who risk their lives and livelihoods to protest or provide safe harbor. Find them, expose yourself to them. Good luck.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 1:23 PM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

Do you feel the same about people from the US with regard to Native Americans? English people with regard to Aboriginal Australians? Japanese people with regard to Chinese people? Turks with regard to Armenians? What makes the Serbian role in this particular conflict different for you?

If I may hazard a guess, it's because you learnt of it at a specific time of your life you were becoming more socially aware and it was happening now! You had a tangible bad guy you could grasp on to and you haven't yet let go, despite all of the other bad shit that happens in the world, every day, that didn't quite hit your consciousness the same way.

All groups, everywhere, have committed atrocities against some other group at some point in history, somewhere. Most individual people have not committed such atrocities. It is very unlikely that anyone you meet, personally, will have committed such atrocities, and this is what you need to remember.

Many years ago I worked in a fruit shop with two guys, one Bosnian and one Serb. The Bosnian guy had a sister who had a child, at age 13, as a result of being raped during the war. Both of the guys were refugees to Australia as a result of the war, and they got on like a house on fire - seriously, best mates, to the point that the Bosnian sister even dated the Serbian guy for a while. If she can put the past behind her and see a particular Serb as an individual, then so can you.
posted by goo at 1:47 PM on December 12, 2013 [9 favorites]

Instead of seeing it as prejudice, see it as simple conditioning.

Somewhere in your mind it says:
War = bad
Serbs = war
Therefore Serbs = bad

It may be exacerbated if the person you are talking to is also defensive about what happened (defensiveness in response to defensiveness is a "natural" human reaction), or if they are not sufficiently apologetic (which triggers anger over the injustice).

Don't think you're a bad person for forming associations; from one pov life is little else but associations.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:17 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

The policies of a particular government are rarely totally in sync with their people. I'm appalled at my country's foreign policy. There's no reason to assume that any individual Serb agreed with what was done in their name.
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:55 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

Some stereotypes are earned and some are not. People are just people and if you look at your country there are no two people alike. Same there also.
posted by ladoo at 3:12 PM on December 12, 2013

I don't know what the odds are of this happening, but it would be really great if you could talk about this with....a Serb. (No, I can't imagine how one would go about orchestrating such an encounter.)

But maybe the next best step is to learn a little bit about Serbian culture. Find some books or plays or movies (not war-related, or this-particular-war-related) so the war isn't the only thing you know about them.

Another thing that helps me warm up to someone I am uncomfortable being around is to ask them to help me with something. I think even a few minutes of teamwork can help create a bond.

I think recognizing that you have this issue is a great first step, though.
posted by elizeh at 5:28 PM on December 12, 2013

I recently returned from Rwanda. There is a powerful genocide memorial in Kigali.

I think part of your reaction to Serbs is an emotional reaction to how any population could get lead down the path of committing a genocide. But, if you study the history of genocide, it is a frighteningly common thing. If conditions are right, if the correct rhetoric is employed, if the people are manipulated just so - any population can become genocidal.

I mean, a sober person might look a drunk with disdain, thinking: why don't you just put the bottle down. But, if the sober person really understood alcoholism, they would realize they should think: There go I but for the Grace of God. Addiction can hit anyone.

I think if you understood genocide better, you might understand the people who get caught up in it better.
posted by Flood at 5:33 PM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

I was born in the U.S., have mixed ethnic parentage, but still look ethnic in a way that is impossible for most fellow Americans to pin down.

I have also lived or traveled to parts of the U.S. where large numbers of Bosnian, Kosovar, and Montenegrin refugees have been resettled. Maybe every one or two years, a perfect stranger approaches me (or is driving my cab*) and asks, "Where are you from?"

I tell them the U.S. city I was born in and then they say, "No, where are you from?"

I know what part of the bloodline they're fishing for so I tell them, "One set of my grandparents is Serbian."

At this point--every time--the man or woman's face lights up with a smile and they say some version of, "Oh! I knew it! You're from my part of the world!" I've even gotten hugged. And every time my heart both swells and breaks a little, because they identify as Muslim and/or ethnic Albanian refugees from the former Yugoslavia--they're here because Serbians have burned their homes down, killed their children, driven them from their ancestral land. And then this happens next, every time: they will mention they are refugees, but they also want to talk about the grace of leaving that hatred and madness of neighbor against neighbor behind. They usually have stories about that too. These interactions are always lovely and warm and cheerful: the refugee from Serbian atrocities, excited to stumble across a Serbian-looking face in their adopted home.

Here's the kicker: as shorthand, I say my grandparents are "from Serbia," but they were actually driven from Serbia by the Ottoman Turks and ended up farming over the line in what is/was technically Croatia. Relatives who were there for WWII did not fare well--we have our own heartbreaking letters to the U.S. about concentration camps, destroyed property, public executions . In all of them, the culprits--the Ustase--are described not as, "the Croatians," but, "the fascists"--a careful distinction in a land where peaceful coexistence has reigned among neighbors in between the periods where all hell has broken loose.

* The cab ride with the ethnic Albanian Kosavar did NOT end like this.
posted by blue suede stockings at 6:07 PM on December 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

It doesn't at all excuse anything done by the Serbian side in the Yugoslav Wars (who I think were entirely in the wrong, just for the record), but I found that whole event and the attitudes on the Serbian side that led to it more comprehensible when I learned that the Serbs were explicitly targeted for genocide in WW2 by the Croatian fascists the Nazis set up as a puppet government there. (The Ustashe are a somewhat obscure part of history for most outside the Balkans, but they were really, really, really bad- the most horrifying atrocities I've ever heard of were carried out by them.) The attempted genocide of Serbs wasn't at all on the same scale as the Nazi genocide of Jews (probably mostly because the Ustashe didn't control enough territory to carry out anything of comparable scale), but the Ustashe ran Nazi-style death camps in which Serbs (as well as Jews) were subjected to the same treatment as Jews were by the Nazis- no one is quite sure how many Serbs died at Ustashe hands, but the estimates range from 300,000 to 600,000. From what I've gathered, the trauma of that whole period was pretty much swept under the rug in post-war Yugoslavia, which I think was a pretty major contributor to the kind of attitudes (particularly among Serbs) that led to the outbreak of the Yugoslav Wars in the 90s- particularly when one considers that Ustashe actions would have been within living memory of many people then.

As I say, this doesn't at all excuse or lessen what was done under the Serbian banner in the 90s (and as was said above, if you're running into actual apologia for Serbian atrocities, you have good reason to feel hostile about that), but it did definitely put a different light on the whole thing for me when I learned about things like the Jasenovac death camp, for example. I don't know how much you've read about the history of the Balkans in WW2, but if you haven't, I wonder how much it would both humanize Serbs and break some of the associations you might have now that lead to the prejudice, in kind of the same way that I think anti-Semitism in the Western world was generally much diminished compared to what it had been when the details of the Holocaust became widely known. (I should warn you, though, that it is some of the most disturbing and upsetting history that there is- what the Ustashe did to Serbs and Jews, as I say, are probably the most horrifying atrocities I have ever read about.) If you now associate Serbs with genocidal racism on the subconscious level, knowing that in recent history Serbs were victims of the absolute worst sort of it themselves might shatter that subconscious view of them as being simply victimizers.
posted by a louis wain cat at 6:08 PM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

There's a bit of wisdom about WWII & the holocaust that I think is applicable here. A young person I know once expressed anti-German sentiment because of what happened during WWII [his mother is Polish].

This is what I said to him:

"The lesson to learn from WWII is not that the Germans or Japanese are inherently bad people. Yes, some of them committed acts of genocide and unspeakable cruelty - the thing worth knowing is that the Germans and Japanese are just like us. The people who would commit wholesale murder, the ones who would guard death-camps, the ones who would look the other way when the cattle-truck trains went past - those people are all around us. What was different was a political system that allowed and encouraged these people in their despicable acts against fellow humans. If we learn anything from this sorry episode, it's not "Germans are bad", it's "Be thankful that you live in a liberal democracy, and don't ever let lowlifes like that get their hands on power again".
posted by HiroProtagonist at 6:15 PM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

Recognizing your prejudice is the 1sr step. Your prejudice may stem, in part, from knowledge of the actions of individual Serbs, or bias on the news, or shread prejudice you learn from your community. To reduce it, talk to Serbs, read about them, and try to see things from their point of view. Familiarity with Serbs will help you see them as individuals, and learning more about their perspective will help you understand that everybody has a stake in a war, that it's usually complex, often deals with historic (perceived or real) injustice, and that everybody suffers except the arms makers.
posted by theora55 at 6:23 PM on December 12, 2013

You should read more about the build-up to the Yugoslav Wars. You don't even have to read rah-rah Serb sources. The more you immerse yourself in that subject, the more you will find that the truth is never so simple, and that it is poisonous to ascribe to a people the crimes of the past.

The point isn't whether or not we "excuse" atrocities, since obviously we don't. The point is how we go forward.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:33 PM on December 12, 2013

There's a lot of research that shows that contact with people you hold a prejudice against lowers that prejudice.

I know you said you've been in contact with Serbs, and felt an immediate and impulsive dislike, but I think you need to spend MORE time. More contact - maybe in a context that will involve kids? Kids are not yet patterned with cultural norms. Maybe you could find a Serbian kid that you don't intrinsically hate.

Also, I think this was brave of you to post, and it shows that you care enough about compassion that you don't want to allow hate to embitter your spirit. Good luck!
posted by SarahBellum at 7:49 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I just travelled through some of former Yugoslavia, specifically Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina, and it was pretty confronting for me too - especially with regard to the Serbian role in the most recent war.

On the way I also visited the Jasenovac memorial - where many tens of thousands of ethnic Serbs were killed in WW2. Brutality and genocide aren't limited to one country, and Serbian people have certainly suffered severely in very recent history.

People are complex, and history is even more so, but the individuals you meet are not responsible for the crimes during the war. And you seem to know this.
posted by twirlypen at 1:31 AM on December 13, 2013

Don't look up Serbian war journalists. Look up Serbian bakers and childcare workers.

Or maybe even Einstein's first wife.
posted by blue suede stockings at 12:17 PM on December 13, 2013

I have found that when I meet Serbs, I instantly and intensely disliked them.

Curious to know your reaction to Croats, Albanians, and Bosnian Muslims. If this is about the recent war(s), there was a lot of unpleasantness on all sides.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:14 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

Did you know hundreds of thousands of Serbs were killed by Croats during WW2?

My point is the history of Balkan conflict is messy fueled by long standing resentments that are not yours to deal with and there are no black hats or white hats.Just people.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 10:50 PM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

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