By Paul M. Lewis
Prejudice, according to professor Jennifer Eberhardt, a researcher on race and equality at Stanford University, “…is not just about police. It’s not something that is just about white people. It’s a function of how we are socialized.”
There’s no doubt a lot of truth in this statement, and we all have to somehow come to terms with how we are socialized in our society. Even so, the effects of prejudice are felt disproportionately by some, much more than by others. I am, for example, not a black man. I don’t know how it feels to wake up in the morning, wondering if I might be stopped, or arrested, or worse, just because I’m driving to work, or walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood. I don’t know what it feels like to have a frightened older white guy shy away from me, just because I happen to be standing behind him in line to get money out of the ATM, or to see a white woman stare at me, pretending not to, hoping that I don’t see the fear in her eyes, simply because I happened to glance up at her in the grocery store while looking for a ripe avocado. I’m not black. I have never experienced these things.
But this clearly is a commonplace experience of black men – particularly young black men – in this country. Many white people consciously suspect black men of the potential of violent crime, not because of anything a specific man does or says or threatens, but simply because of who he is. In other words, young black men are condemned for no other reason than because of how they look. Neither are the police exempt from these sorts of preconceived ideas, as the country knows only too well and has seen countless times. And we don’t have to go back to the Jim Crow South and de jure segregation for examples, even though countless such instances could be cited. We have seesawed of late from Trayvon Martin in Florida, to Michael Brown in Missouri, to Eric Garner in New York. And that is merely to name those who have come to nationwide attention. Other deaths, less famous but equally as tragic, and equally as devastating to the families of those who loved these men, have taken place during that same time period.
To live and breathe in 21st century America is to live with both conscious and unconscious thoughts and feelings, no only about black people, but about others as well. Whoever may not be a member of our particular “tribe,” however that group is defined, is fair game. Anyone who lives near a reservation is well aware of the negative stereotypes they have had drilled into them about Indians. They are lazy, shiftless, alcoholic, and drug-addled. They’re just different from you and me (meaning us whites). We were, for example, visiting a private ranch in northern Arizona not long ago, whose owner conducted tours for the public designed to visit a vast number of ancient petroglyphs on the property. The old cowboy who conducted the tour was a sweet guy, someone you’d be happy to have as your granddad and who, according to his own statement, had made many friendships with local Indians. Yet, at one point in the tour, stopping along the way to show us a half-abandoned traditional Navajo dwelling called a hogan, he said, “These people just think different from us. I’m not saying that’s bad, just different.” Such a statement, while no doubt consciously well meant, demonstrates an underlying prejudice. “These people,” first of all, sets Indians up as distinct, different, foreign, “the other,” and asserting that they think differently (really, how so?) only enhances and aggrandizes this kind of separation. It’s the modern, more polite version of the older, less polite “them injins.”
As a gay man, I am not unfamiliar with prejudice myself, of course. Although in the case of gay people, except for those who are “flamboyantly gay” (is there such a thing as a flamboyantly straight person?), many of us can go undetected. In some instances, for all of our lives, unless we choose to make a statement. Such statements can be made overtly, or more subtly. My partner and I, for example, show up at more or less the same time at the grocery store every Sunday morning to do our shopping (we are remarkably regular about such things), month after month, year after year, and the cashiers at the supermarket eventually begin to understand that we are a couple. But even in modern America, where gay marriage has come to be accepted by a majority of the population, I am still hyper-conscious of what is going on while standing next to my partner at the front desk of a hotel when we travel together. “Yes, one room, with one king bed, please,” we say. What does the clerk behind the counter think? Do I detect a raised eyebrow? Is there a widening of the eyes? And don’t even think of holding hands most places in this country, even today, as any “normal” couple, might do. Nor do I forget that there are people out there, some in this country, but many more in places like Africa, or Russia, or parts of the Middle East, whose intolerance and religious zealotry not only sanctions, but demands, that we be put to death, not for what we look like, but for who we love.
The word prejudice comes from two Latin words that separately mean “pre” and “judgment.” What we do, all of us to one extent or another, is to judge people and situations in advance. This means that, before we ever meet “those people,” that is, those we think of as “other,” we project a set of thoughts, ideas, and feelings about them. Some of these notions are conscious, and some may be held unconsciously. But one way or another, such projection frequently results in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, so that what we think actually becomes what we see, or hear, or how we interpret people’s behavior. “Indians just think different from us.” “Those young black guys standing in front of that house talking loud, what’ll they do if I walk by them?” “And those gay folks, you know, they’re all pretty much pansies, who at best know all of the show tunes that ever existed, and at worse are leering at your young son, lying in wait to convert him to their deviant lifestyle.” This is the nature of prejudice. It doesn’t give anybody a chance to be a separate, idiosyncratic human being – good or bad – but lumps people into categories we think we know something about already.
A friend of mine once told me that the great Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of Self-Realization Fellowship, and someone whom I consider to be a fully realized avatar, was once traveling on a train in the American South. This was back in the 1920’s, but probably could happen today, as well. A white man seated nearby began to say unkind things to him, wondering how and why he, a brown man, would think it all right to ride in a car along with white folks. Yogananda said one thing only to the man in return: “The Divine Spirit is not pleased when you disparage his brown children.”
The Divine Spirit is not pleased when any of us denigrate and belittle any of his children, be they brown, or black, or red (so-called anyway, although no Indian I ever met actually looked red to me), or gay, or any other category you might care to create. And not just disparage, but pre-judge. Even if being born in America to an extent does predestine us to a degree of racial prejudice, it never means that anyone has to act on it. No one responds in action to every impulse she or he feels. If that were true, there would undoubtedly be a lot more violence in the world than there currently is. And God knows there’s enough already!
When a prejudiced thought comes unbidden into a person’s mind, what is essential is not that it has entered into our head, but what next to do with it. There’s a black man. Be careful! No one has to stop at that. The next thought can, and should be, I don’t know that man as a person; let me not judge him on how he looks, but on how he acts. Let me approach at least with an open mind and heart. Would a smile be so terrible? Or maybe, if we were so inclined, we might even want to say: “There goes my brother, or my sister. No different from me. Just like me, in fact. Of priceless value, and a child of the Divine Spirit.”