A LITTLE BIT PREJUDICED

4 December 2019

 It must have been around 1950 – I was 10 years old then, but it could have been even a little earlier – when I happened to hear just a snippet of adult conversation. What I heard was that White people couldn’t marry Black people. I asked why, and was told that “it’s the law in some places.”

   That little bit of information didn’t change my life. I didn’t know any Black people at the time, didn’t know anything about racism or segregation, and didn’t really know much about marriage, White or Black. Yet, that conversation has stayed with me for about 70 years.

   I say it didn’t change my life, and yet in a way it probably did. It was likely the first time I heard something that suggested that all people were not the same, and that the differences might be bad – even legally bad.

 

As I grew up, I heard a lot of things that implied differences between people:

  World War II left-overs for the “enemy” – kraut, chink, jap

  Schoolyard banter: queer, fairy, pansy.

  In the movies and on television: “Bad” Indians killing “Good” White people; buffoon Mexican sidekicks – “Cisco, the sheriff, he is coming closer;” subservient, barely educated Blacks – “Lawsy, Master Brown, I’se working as fast as I can.”

  Passing social commentary: “wetbacks;” “High school students don’t work in the fields; that’s Mexican work.” “Sure, some Negroes are fine people, but would you want your daughter to marry one?”  

 I’ve left out the really hateful thoughts and epithets. Most of the above, I believe, were often said without malice, without any real ill-will – in fact, without thought. Even so, how can we have grown up in an environment in which there was so much emphasis on difference, without absorbing some belief that there really were things that separated us? The answer, I think, is clear; we haven’t. I think, as the title of this essay suggests, we’re all “a little bit prejudiced.”

    You may not agree that you’re prejudiced, but your everyday language may identify you as closet bigot, at least. How many times have you identified a co-worker as “the Black guy,” your next-door neighbors as “the Mexican family,” or those in another household as “the gay couple?” As I wrote in another essay (“Profiling,” linked above), there are very few occasions in which the adjectival descriptor is necessary. Why isn’t a “Black guy” just a guy, a “Mexican family” just a family, or a gay couple just your neighbors?

*  *  *

   As I see it, there are three reasons for prejudicial language and thought: one, you really do believe that certain people should be discriminated against; two, you have developed and fostered the bad and lazy habit of identifying people by their differences; or three, you really fear certain people for certain reasons.

   If you sincerely believe that the United States should be a White nation, or a Christian nation, or a Republican or Democrat nation, then god help you (if there is one) because nobody else can.

   If – like most of us – you’ve just fallen into the American bad habit of identifying people by their traits, you can change. In doing so, you will  do something good for yourself, and also for the country. It’s pretty simple, too. The first step is, as I said above, to quit adjectivizing. If there’s no obvious reason to point out a person’s race or religion, don’t. Bad habits are hard to break, but they can be broken.

   As for being afraid of people who are different from you, you need to be sure you aren’t projecting fear or blame of individuals to whole groups. Robberies, murders, hit-and-run deaths, and rapes are done by Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, American Indians, and others who don’t fit in any of those groups. The two largest “terrorist” attacks in United States history were perpetrated by a White American U. S. Army veteran (Oklahoma City federal building bombing 1995 – 168 killed) and “radical Islamicists” (“September 11th,” 2,753 deaths). CNN identified nine other “notable” terrorist attacks in the United States since the 1990s, about half of them admitted to have been made by “radicalized” Americans or foreigners. On the other hand, since 2005, the ACLU has identified over 200 attacks of various kinds on Islamic mosques, ranging from graffiti, threatening letters, and break-ins to arson, bombings, and shootings. (In many cases, the perpetrators have “proudly” identified themselves as American Christians.) Most of the recent, seemingly almost-daily, massacres by firearms at schools, churches, theaters, etc., have been  predominantly the work of White Americans. Bombings of clinics that perform abortions, and murders of “abortion doctors,” have been done by men who identify themselves as Christians. I could go on, but the point is that individuals or small groups are to blame, not Whites or Blacks or Moslems or Christians. Hating an entire group of people is not only unjustified, it’s ignorant and stupid.

*  *  *

 We’re in a particularly bad time in the United States right now. Our President is notable for his derisive nicknames and descriptions of anyone he considers a “never-Trumper.” Some of his supporters have claimed he isn’t really that mean, that he just uses hyperbole for effect. I don’t believe it, but, giving him the benefit of the doubt, his “hyperbole” aimed at everyone from political opponents to world leaders is offensive and divisive. By his words and his actions, he has given us permission to let out all our latent, half-formed thoughts about anything and everything, in particular how other people are different (and, obviously, worse) than we are. Many people have accepted and follow his lead. He may have given us permission, but that doesn’t mean you have to accept it. 

 

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© Sanford Wilbur 2020