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Prejudice: What’s Up With That?

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom


Nelson Mandela famously stated that hate is taught, not born with. When prejudice is taught, scarcely is it done by statements outright affirming hate. Prejudice is most effectively drilled in subtly through implicit association.

Terrorist—Arab. Crime—African American. Refugee—Hispanic.

These words or variants of them perpetually appear together in articles from countless news sources, opinion pieces, or other forms of media. As explained in the last article, implicit association results in one word stimulating the thought of the other while ignoring the context, even if a piece of media is not intended to be a negative portrayal. A paradigm example of this can be found in an article, written by Daniel Engber, titled “What’s Up With ‘Al-’?”

This article is meant to explain why many English spellings of Arabic last names begin with either Al- or El-. The short answer is that the tradition began by addressing a person’s profession, place of origin, traits, etc. It also has Islamic religious significance in that it can be one of the names of God in Arabic, such as “Al-Rahman” meaning “The Most Beneficent.” The article succinctly explains this, but in the process, is complicit in creating harmful implicit associations.

The article’s opening line is “an insurgent named Haitham al-Badri masterminded the bombing of the Samarra shrine” and the rest of the introduction follows suit (Engber). By using numerous examples of terrorists whose name includes an “Al-” prefix, the article creates an implicit association between Arabs, their names, and terrorists. It does not claim that Arabs are terrorists or anything of the sort—but it guides and enables the reader to think of terrorists when they think of Arabs or whatever pertains to this particular population.

One mention of a prominent Arab figure is of Mohamed ElBaradei, an Egyptian Nobel Prize winner who served as Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency. While this mention seems like a positive representation, the article only mentions his name and the acronym of the agency he served; it is unlikely a reader will gauge the positive influence of this figure from the article unless a curious reader looks closely into the name.

An issue lies in the fact that a reader, even intelligent readers (e.g. people in academia following research publications), are likely to quickly pass through an article. A reader is most likely to be impacted by what they immediately read (e.g. an association between Arabs and terrorists). Using data from a study by Harold Weinreich and his colleagues on eye tracking methods, Nielsen concluded that only about 30% of the word count is read on an average visit to a website (Nielsen).

The results of both studies indicate that most people will not look into Mohamed ElBaradei further than what the article establishes about him later in the word count. Rather, they will retain the harmful association created in the introduction as it repeatedly uses terrorists as a synecdoche for Arab names.


Work Cited

  1. Nielsen, Jakob. “How Little Do Users Read?” Nielsen Norman Group, Nielsen Norman Group, 5 May 2008,

  2. Weinreich, Harald & Obendorf, Hartmut & Herder, Eelco & Mayer, Matthias “Not quite the average: An empirical study of Web use”, 2008,

Last Fact Checked on May 28th, 2021.


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