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Uncovering My Hidden Prejudices

August 31, 2023, in Articles > Baha'i Life, by

A recent discussion in my Ruhi Book 14 study circle (Participating in Public Discourse) threw me for quite a loop. In the course, we read this quote:

“In accordance with the divine teachings in this glorious dispensation we should not belittle anyone and call him ignorant, saying: ‘You know not, but I know.’” 1

Yikes. I’ve had that thought–”you know not, but I know”–more times than I’d care to admit. I like to think I’m free of prejudice, but here I discovered a bias that had been hiding in my subconscious–bias about educational attainment.

We are all, at times, subject to our lower natures. Part of this lower nature is a desire to feel superior. My brain doesn’t consciously think “I’m superior,” but I think the spirit is there all the same. It was quite humbling and a bit horrifying to have that realization.

A friend in the study circle pointed out an insight that really gave me pause: investigation of truth isn’t possible if we hang on to prejudices. Investigation requires detachment from preconceived notions, openness to new information, and true consultation.

As a librarian, Baha’u’llah’s counsel to investigate truth for oneself is particularly close to my heart. I like to think I’m good at it–finding credible information is my job, after all. But here I was, realizing that the thing that I pride myself on–investigation of truth–is being jeopardized by an unconscious bias. If my mind is already making assumptions about one group or another, I won’t be open to new information either from or about them. How can I investigate truth while ignoring new information?

I suddenly felt a great sense of urgency to overcome this shortcoming of mine.

By happenstance, just the week before, I had an extremely relevant conversation in one of my graduate courses. We discussed non-traditional sources of information–meaning, not scholarly journals–and how they are often ignored. In academia, you usually need a PhD and a position in the professional hierarchy to be considered credible. But there is a lot of information available from people who have lived experience in a particular area that goes ignored simply because they don’t have the educational bona fides. And who is more credible than the person actually living the experience? When we overlook potential sources of knowledge based on educational attainment alone, the contributions especially of historically marginalized groups might be entirely dismissed and lost.

I began to ask myself: Who is missing from my investigations? Who already has experience in the areas I’m studying? Who am I excluding from consultation? It’s going to require a lot of active work to check this subconscious bias of mine, but I feel many of the practices Baha’u’llah has encouraged us to follow help a great deal.

In the Writings, we are counseled to study the Word of God morning and evening.

“Immerse yourselves in the ocean of My words, that ye may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths.” 2

As I study, I try to think about how the passage relates to my own life. This naturally leads to self-reflection.

“Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning…” 3

Self-reflection is not always easy, though. My brain often skirts right by certain things simply because I don’t realize they might apply to me. That’s why I find one of the most valuable practices to be that of consultation.

“Take ye counsel together in all matters, inasmuch as consultation is the lamp of guidance which leadeth the way, and is the bestower of understanding.” 4

When I consult with a trusted friend or family member, trying to remain detached and open to their frank and loving feedback, I often learn things about myself that I had been completely ignorant of before. Nowhere is this more apparent to me than in my marriage. Being part of an interracial and intercultural couple has helped me uncover many unconscious thought patterns about race I have absorbed from the culture around me. But I never would have become aware of them if my husband and I didn’t consult on our actions and beliefs.

Praying for guidance, and meditating so that my inner sight can be awakened, surely help me strengthen the Divine qualities needed for this internal work. In all things we can rely on God to assist us.

“Baha’u’llah says there is a sign (from God) in every phenomenon: the sign of the intellect is contemplation and the sign of contemplation is silence, because it is impossible for a man to do two things at one time – he cannot both speak and meditate.” 5

I think meditation also strengthens my mindfulness muscles, which help me to slow down my reactions. When I have a thought or an impulse to act, it is usually based on unconscious habits of mind. But taking a moment to think before reacting gives me a choice, time to reflect on motivations and assumptions, so that I can act more in line with Baha’u’llah’s teachings.

Most importantly for me, I find, is reminding myself of Baha’u’llah’s teachings about the nature of humanity.

“O SON OF SPIRIT! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.” 6

When I read that passage, it reminds me not only that I am not superior to anyone else,  but also that I do not need to be superior to anyone else. My worthiness doesn’t depend on anyone else being less worthy. I was created noble, and so was everyone else. We’re worthy simply because God created us that way. That knowledge is the best antidote I have found for my biases.

Footnotes & Citations

  1. Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha #15[]
  2. Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 182[]
  3. Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, from the Arabic #31[]
  4. Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, Lawh-i-Maqsud[]
  5. Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 174[]
  6. Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, from the Arabic #13[]
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Maia James

Maia is a new mom, graduate student, and public librarian in the United States with a passion for community building. You’ll often find her writing in coffee shops, reading with her lap cat, and exploring backroads with her husband.
Maia James

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