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Buried Prejudice: Revealing Remarks

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Editor's Note: This story is a supplement to the Feature "Buried Prejudice: The Bigot in Your Brain" from the April 2008 issue of Scientific American Mind

After shouting a series of racist slurs during a performance, comedian Michael Richards of Seinfeld fame apologized to a late-night television audience: “I went into a rage.… I’m deeply, deeply sorry … I’m not a racist.”

For making anti-Semitic remarks during a drunk-driving arrest, actor Mel Gibson (left) pleaded with the public: “Please know from my heart that I am not an anti-Semite. I am not a bigot. Hatred of any kind goes against my faith.”

Apologizing for an antigay slur on television, comedian Jerry Lewis said, “Everyone who knows me understands that I hold no prejudices in this regard.”

And backing away from intimations that black people are not as intelligent as whites, biologist and Nobel laureate James Watson (right) expressed bewilderment and contrition: “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief.”

These public apologies betray a naïveté about the nature of prejudice. Because most people have no conception of the bias in all of us, they react with shock and alarm when racist, anti-Semitic or antigay remarks surface from those they admire, and the offenders are sometimes similarly perplexed. But to know how the mind works is to better understand the origins of such unappealing utterances: they stem, of course, from subconscious connections embedded in all our minds [see accompanying main article]. And the unsettling truth is that just about any of us could have made them. After all, we cannot fully choose our attitudes, because our conscious minds are not always in the driver’s seat; thus, wanting to be nonprejudiced is not the same as being nonprejudiced. 

—S.C.

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