A Challenge to my Prejudices

A few years ago I met a man who turned up one day at a local club where I was a member. He introduced himself, appearing nervous and anxious. I am experienced at working with people with mental health problems and recognised at once his disposition. In my usual style, I welcomed him as a newcomer and spent some time chatting with him.

During the following months we met quite regularly and on occasions went out for a meal together. He was intelligent and good company; someone who I could envisage becoming a friend, although until that time he was only a “club friend”.

It must have been getting on for a year later, we were in a local restaurant and he asked if he could confide in me with some details about his life. Willingly, I offered myself as his confidante. I expected him to tell me about his mental health state. However, the news he gave me challenged all my prejudices in one go. He explained that for twenty three years he had been in a high security prison hospital after having committed a double murder. He had, since his release, been living in a hostel near my home and needed a reference for a job he wanted. Would I be prepared to give him one?

So, my beliefs that this situation challenged:-

  1. Life is sacred and anyone who takes another person’s life in cold blood (as he had done) is a killer first and always.
  2. A murderer cannot be a “nice guy” (a term I had previously used to describe this man).
  3. Justice in the UK is as good as it gets and when someone has served their term, they are entitled to be released and supported by the community.
  4. Everyone should be given a second chance.
  5. I do not judge people by past actions, only by present experiences.

I was having a moral dilemma; beliefs in conflict. This man had become a friend of sorts and I enjoyed his company. Should I now, having offered myself as his confidante, deny him the respect and non-judgemental response I would give to other people?

He was aware of my difficulty and acknowledged that perhaps he should not have told me. However, I realised quite quickly that this was my problem and I needed to deal with it. The only way I knew how, was to express my feelings of disquiet. We had a really interesting discussion about prejudice and how he is discriminated against by all society. He did suggest that maybe he deserved this public response. However, (as in 3 above) I cannot acknowledge that someone deserves to face discrimination. The response to his previous action had been year incarcerated.

As an equality practitioner, I say that everyone should have an opportunity to live free from prejudice and discrimination. I was giving myself a stern lesson in finding a non-judgemental response within me.

Being honest about my feelings was the foundation of getting over the difficulty and in time, and several discussions later, I was able to overcome the problem and give him the reference he needed. Contact with him didn’t last long; the probation authorities moved him on to a new area of the country; a symbol of the institutionalised discrimination he faced. All the effort he had made to find a community and a little acceptance was taken away from him.

Perhaps you are asking why I am writing this now. He, as an error on his mobile phone, rang me today. It is the first contact since he left the area nearly three years ago. We had a slightly embarrassed chat and after the call ended I reflected on the learning I went through in accepting him in my life.

I’ll end by asking you some questions. What is it that would most challenge your non-judgemental equilibrium? How would you have reacted in my position? Can you think of situations where you would discriminate?

I think that by knowing answers to these and other similar questions, is the first step in improving ones own equality practices.

Comments are welcome.

About equalityedge

I run Equality Edge and its unique and creative "Working with Difference" project. It supports employers and managers in gaining a competitive and cost saving advantage from meeting equality and diversity best practice obligations. Coaching and workshops are used to deliver organisational, team and leadership development, assisting in improving communication and the understanding of the impact difference has on workplace behaviour.
This entry was posted in discrimination, Equality & Diversity, Prejudice. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Challenge to my Prejudices

  1. Dean says:

    There is a qualitative difference between being professionally non-judgemental, in this case not discriminating against someone with a spent criminal conviction, and inviting someone into your life as a friend. Choosing who you accept on that basis does not make you “prejudiced” its on a much deeper level than that. Would you even have questioned yourself if the murders he committed involved sexual violence as well or if he had been a child abuser? We can tell ourselves that we hate the crime, not the criminal but are these things divisible?

  2. equalityedge says:

    Being non-judgemental is an essential tool in managing prejudice.

    Is it not incumbent on us all to respond to people as we find them and not to take into account their past actions or misdemeanours? Everyone has some sort of skeleton in their closet which would affect they way others think of them, if they found out. I certainly would not want to be judged on unknown facts about me or the way I behaved in the past.

    Making a judgement about someone, based on a past indiscretion (no matter how serious) seems quite close to judging by difference – race, gender or sexuality perhaps.

    • Dean says:

      Couldn’t agree less. You were not judging on his race etc, or on a passed indescretion. That really belitttles the nature of his crime. Your way of thinking lacks a moral compass in this regard. By all means do not prevent him from working or finding housing or any other human or civil right. Even befriend him if you have the emotional strength. Lord Longford for example for years befriended Myra Hindley but would he have assisted in finding work with children? Or perhaps you would befriend Nick Griffin and assist him in finding work with Jewish Care?

  3. equalityedge says:

    I am sure we all have a limit regarding who we support and to what extent. I always try to ensure that when I make a choice about who to offer support or friendship, it is based on facts and not prejudices. That is why in the original post I explained that the situation questioned my beliefs and prejudices and is a complex part of being an advocate of equalities.

    Nick Griffin, I would not support; I am informed by his current views and my experience of him. I would have no dilemma in this decision making.

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