In a conversation with some friends, we agreed that people should not judge by skin color, which by now should gradually become a more common opinion to society.

But I said that sometimes, conscious or not, I make a pre-judgment based on the clothing one's using. So if a person - of any skin color - comes in my direction wearing dirty, stinky or ragged clothing I might become very uncomfortable, scared and/or protective (I live in Brazil and robberies are very common here).

I then asked my friends: Am I being very prejudiced by thinking like this?
My friends answered that this thinking has the same intensity and/or equal meaning to being racist (judging by skin color).

I want to know why this thinking is considered distasteful?

The first thing that comes to my head is that skin color is natural and does not influence behavior. But clothing feels more like a consequence of that person's life and behavior.

  • 1
    Are you sure it isn't just the current fashion, among certain political lines, to call everything racist that is not their political line?
    – puppetsock
    Feb 11, 2020 at 16:51
  • @puppetsock Could be, they are close friends which only expressed their opinions and I was not sure if I had any arguments for this thinking of mine. Not sure if they did it on purpose. Reading the answers, I now realize I'm very wrong on it.
    – RA828
    Feb 11, 2020 at 18:33
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    – J D
    Feb 11, 2020 at 20:35
  • It's discriminatory or prejudicial (defined: an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason), but your friends miss a larger point. Some discrimination or prejudice is not only acceptable, it's beneficial. Context matters in discrimination, so whether or not you should be kind based on clothing is different than the choice to hire based on clothing. Stereotypes are inaccurate, but can save lives. If someone dresses and acts like a robber, it's probably good to be prepared to be robbed. If right, you live. If wrong, you might offend.
    – J D
    Feb 11, 2020 at 20:38
  • @JD How do you know what people not present 'miss'? Terminate with extreme prejudice. Attribute errors almost as carefully... Feb 12, 2020 at 0:15

5 Answers 5


Classism is not racism, but it is still prejudice.

Your problem here is that your behavior hinges on the assumption you know something usable about the likely behavior of an individual based upon his circumstances.

If you decide that racism is bad only because race somehow does not influence behavior, take a different example. Biological sex clearly does influence behavior. There are many times as many males as females in prison, everywhere, and their crimes are surely more likely to be of a the kind with a targeted victim. It is somehow therefore just fine to assume an individual man you meet is likely to be violent, and act on it? Why not get the issue out of the way and attack him? Unless you are the most rabid variety of antisocial radical feminist, that is clearly a wrong attitude.

The statistical reality is not the point, right? The behavior is wrong and insulting. If you could equally prove that skin-color was correlated with violence, deciding that it was OK to make judgments according to that would still be racist.

Prejudice does not require being factually wrong. It just requires overgeneralizing about individual behavior based on group characteristics.

  • Thank you for your answer, I agree with you. But not sure if changing my thinking will make me less scared/protective around the streets. And that makes me argue with myself considering what you and @A.bakker said.
    – RA828
    Feb 11, 2020 at 18:45
  • Kindness does not have to be a form of stupidity... But it is still appropriate to endeavor to be kind, and not to purposely spread unkindness. Going back to the example, it would be silly not to be at least slightly more defensive around men than women (strangely, more true if you are male): over 90% of felons are men (at least in the US)... It would also be unfortunate to let that defensiveness harden to the point that it would decisively change someone else's life for the worse. Feb 11, 2020 at 18:56
  • There is a complicated middle ground of cultural differences between statistical reality and knee-jerk bigotry. It is hard. Feb 11, 2020 at 19:00
  • 1
    Actually, women routinely receive lighter sentences for the same crime with similar context. law.umich.edu/newsandinfo/features/Pages/…
    – puppetsock
    Feb 11, 2020 at 19:11
  • 1
    @renanAlmeida828 In dangerous environments, stereotypes serve to protect. Not all discrimination is unethical.
    – J D
    Feb 11, 2020 at 20:40

But clothing feels more like a consequence of that person's life and behavior.

This is the statement where you go wrong, just as a person can't decide to be born white/black/Asian/gay/straight not everybody can be born in mid to high income households. Take a child that is born in a household with (extremely)poor parents. He or she will not be able to get a proper education and will struggle to find a good job limiting her income and the financial means to purchase new clothing.

But that's on the long term, short term a person can lose it all thanks to a fire, or an accident leaving them unable to keep their job while hospital bills keep stacking up which both can be caused by factors outside the persons control.

The world is sadly not fair, and some good/intelligent people don't get the chance at happiness they deserve... do they really need to be judged because of that?


Most people agree that racism is wrong, but many disagree why it is wrong. I claim that racism is a form of prejudice that is unethical because it is unjust. A just form of prejudice is something like prejudice against murderers. Murderers form an ethical category so it is just for society to be prejudiced against them, i.e. by putting them all in jail. Wearing a red shirt is not an ethical category so putting all red-shirt-wearers in jail is unjust. Is a category like ragged-clothes-wearer an ethical category? I think the answer has to be no, so if you are prejudiced against them only for the fact that their clothes are dirty, then it is unjust.


One important factor that has not been addressed is the sociological function of clothing.

In general, clothing is a way to non-verbally communicate. The easiest way to show this is that in modern society wearing clothing that displays a symbol implies that you support what that symbol represents (e.g. wearing a band's t-shirt implies you like their music). An example that apply across all cultures is that wearing the cloths associated with a profession implies you are a member of that profession (e.g. wearing a military uniform implies you are a member of the military).

Clothing can do more than just communicate about an individual however. A group of people in the same location wearing clothing associated with one activity can imply that this location is a place where society has dedicated to preforming a set of activities (e.g. a shoreline where multiple people are wearing bathing suits implies that this is a place where people can swim, sunbath, and play volleyball). This function is so vital that many times, formal mechanism are used to enforce it (e.g. a coat check at a restaurant.)

What makes clothing a particularly interesting, and philosophically relevant, is that it is impossible to not send communicate with it. Even if someone has only one set of clothing, they can still make the decision to not wear any clothing. Either option will cause them to communicate a message.

I would argue that it is immoral to accept the message communicated by wearing, "dirty, stinky or ragged clothing" as true. Because being naked is public is illegal is Brazil, somebody with only one set of clothing is sending the message associated with that clothing under coercion. It is invalid to deduce truth from a message that was sent while under coercion (e.g. a judge will render a confession made while under coercion inadmissible as evidence). To my knowledge, all philosophers agree that acting illogically is immoral. Therefore, it is immoral to take action based on the fact that a person is dressed in "dirty, stinky or ragged clothing," assuming that such a person does not own a set of cloths that does not fit that description.

  • Sorry my ignorance, but are you talking about specifically "dirty, stinky or ragged clothing" or any type of clothing in your last paragraph? Because if so, judging that a person likes Nirvana band just because they are wearing a Nirvana t-shirt is immoral since I am deducing a truth. I know this thinking is off, but thats what I understood from your last paragraph, can you clarify?
    – RA828
    Feb 18, 2020 at 13:23
  • Another question, about taking actions based on one's clothing, if a person is wearing a t-shirt of an opposing political party, would it be immoral if I took any actions based on that?
    – RA828
    Feb 18, 2020 at 13:25
  • The last paragraph is based on the assumption that the person in question does not have another set of clothing that does not send the same message. If a person is wearing clothing with a symbol (e.g. logo of a band or political party) and you are in a location where it is possible to acquire a set of clothing that does not have that symbol, then we can deduce that the person in question supports what that symbol represents.
    – E Tam
    Feb 18, 2020 at 20:04

Am I being very prejudiced by thinking like this?

By the semantical definition of prejudice, yes.

You are assuming things about this person based on prior experiences you've had with (or heard about) other people in similar clothing. Regardless of whether we're talking about ragged clothing, stylish clothing, skin color, gender, or any other observable quality; if you rely on prior knowledge and forgo assessing the current situation, you are using prejudice.

An example of what is not prejudice would be if this person had a strong and unlikeable odor, and it would cause you to physically distance yourself from this person. That's not prejudice, it's acting based on what is in front of you.

However, if you did not already smell this person, but distance yourself from them anyway because of your expectation/"knowledge" that people dressed in this manner are more likely to have an odor than people not dressed in this manner, that is prejudiced reasoning.
You already equate ragged clothing to odor, and you are using this as your guiding measure without observing the current situation.

Note that in either case, I'm not labeling your behavior as right or wrong, but rather as prejudiced or not prejudiced. That's an important distinction to keep in mind.

If you are looking for a label of right or wrong, it requires you to first define right and wrong - which is obviously not a simple task and rife with subjective interpretation.

Assuming the premise that "all prejudice is bad", which seems to be the underlying premise in the conversation that sparked this question, your response is prejudiced and therefore "bad".

Whether "all prejudice is bad" is correct, is a different discussion altogether.

  • But the question you avoid answering is the question. We are asked why the behavior was distasteful. Not about its semantics. Feb 12, 2020 at 4:26
  • @hide_in_plain_sight: The second section of the answer (under the horizontal separator) specifically addresses that judging prejudicial behavior as distasteful is a subjective interpretation. "Good" and "bad" are subjective labels and cannot be logically proven, they are subjective morality. But if you presuppose that "X is bad" and I can prove that "this behavior is X", therefore we can conclude that "this behavior is bad". Therefore, people's response to OP is founded on a combination of their observation (OP is prejudiced) and their own morality (prejudice is bad/distasteful/...)
    – Flater
    Aug 19, 2020 at 12:48

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