Q. Have you ever experienced discrimination? If so, please help me understand how bias, prejudice, and discrimination differ.

A. This is how my brain understands bias, prejudice, and discrimination.

Think of bias as an innate preference. It appears that the human brain has an innate safety bias toward what is known and familiar. In fact, the fastest determination the brain ever makes when confronted with something new is whether or not it is familiar. When I meet a creature for the first time, my brain has already whizzed through a sequence of determinations such as:

  • Human or not human?
  • Male or female?
  • My race or not?
  • My culture and language or not?
  • Safe or dangerous?

You get the idea. Suppose you see a fork on the floor. Your brain will immediately try to identify the object and search for a label. “Ah, a fork.” (Not every brain on this planet has seen a fork so for those who have not, the object will not be known and familiar.) After that, what your brain has learned about the rules for forks will likely kick in (e.g., forks should not be on the floor; it needs to be picked up so it doesn’t cause injury; it must be washed before it can be used in preparing or eating food). All things being equal, the brain feels more comfortable with the familiar. Therefore, it makes sense that you may be biased in favor of your own culture and language because it is known and familiar.

I think of prejudice as a learned, preconceived opinion about someone or something. It can be positive or negative. For example, I am prejudiced against wandering around alone at midnight in the heart of strange city or eating food prepared and offered by road-side vendors in almost any country. I am prejudiced toward certain types of favorite foods, music, books, travel, people who have a good sense of humor, and so on. Prejudices can have positive or negative implications, too. Prejudices are often not only pervasive but also powerfully negative in race, culture, politics, religion, education, gender, and sexual orientation—to name just a few.

I think of discrimination as the process a person’s brain goes through whereby it responds differently to a person or situation or belief system as compared to others. The word itself appears to come from the Latin verb, discrimino: to separate, to distinguish, or to make a distinction. The ability to discriminate quickly and effectively is crucial to living safely. As with prejudice, it can have positive or negative implications. Some discriminate negatively toward people and ideas ad infinitum just because they are different.

Have I have experienced discrimination? Of course, many times. My guess is that at some level or another so has most everyone on this planet. It’s part and parcel of the human condition. For example, recently I offered to speak about brain function at a four-year college. I was told very directly that this would never happen because I am “white.” I am. From a distance and without makeup on, some find it difficult to see where my hair stops and my skin begins. I did not, however, choose my skin color. So, as I said, human beings experience discrimination. It’s a fact of life. The bigger question for me is whether or not I will take discrimination personally and overreact or just move on through other open doors. My personal goal is to avoid discriminating negatively simply on the basis of differences—especially those over which an individual has no choice or control.