America is once again being tested. However uncomfortable, the conversation is open, the questions are still demanding answers, and the mirror is still reflecting back upon us.
Are we prejudice?
The answer is yes … and it shall be yes.
Do prejudices cause pain?
The answer is yes … and it shall be no.
I believe that, at the most basic level, we rely on prejudice for survival. This is why society’s call to end prejudgement of each other in the name of racial equality fails, despite the best intentions.
Imagine you are in immediate danger and need help. You scan the crowd. Who will come to your aid? Your brain calculates a lifetime of experience to guide you toward someone who reminds you of safety and protection, using mental associations, using prejudice.
The bird in forest does the same. With little to go on but a song and a feathery display, she chooses the father of her next child. She listens to an urge that says, “avoid him,” “pick him,” or “give that one a try.”
The way a person looks (dresses, grooms, postures) signals to us who he or she is. The sound of one’s voice (inflections, phrases, and pronunciations) affect our temperament, whether we are conscious of it or not.
A piano tuner left a message on my answering machine about his service. He ended the message with a simple, “bye bye.” Aside from his masculine voice, he sounded exactly like my Nana used to when she closed her telephone conversations. It made me smile and think of her. This was a man I could trust.
A dark black man walked up to me at the library yesterday and asked me a question. His melodic and soft African voice transported me to a land — learned of through movies, documentaries, books, and stories — where there is a deep connection to nature and a tremendous regard for spirit and kindness. This was a man I wanted to help.
A radio host interviewed a guest about personal health. The doctor spoke with a strong, inner-city accent and closed his opinion with “Know what em sayin’?” laughing a little. This was the lingo of “too cool for school” guys on the street, people who don’t value the kind of learning required to practice medicine. This was a man I questioned.
These are associations, however fair or unfair, that I make. They are learned and then delivered without evaluation. They are my brain’s way of protecting me in those moments when I don’t yet know the truth.
Yes; this fails me when I cling to my prejudice and close off all further evidence. I must continue to look for clues to prove or disprove my judgment. I kept the radio tuned and found the doctor’s advice to be sound and his concern to be authentic. Had I turned off the program without giving him a chance, I wouldn’t have learned about his schooling, his experience, and his professional perspective. I’d have left with the deeper prejudice of maintaining an unfounded opinion, one based on past experience with no regard for the current truth. Would he one day be my doctor? No. Should the inner-city youth he cares about seek out his care? I believe so.
A New Angle
Racism cannot be broken by eliminating prejudice, for we need to be free to — to be encouraged to — rely on our instincts. Instead, we must focus on the real scourge to be banished: the notion of superiority of one race over another.
The lion who sleeps in the shade is not superior to the zebra on which he preys. The blue jay that steels territory from the cardinal may be more aggressive, but he is not the better bird. Every animal contributes to the existence of all, no matter what its position on the food chain. And each has its own talents, its own tricks, and its own characteristics.
The conversation has matured. People of all colors are seeing each other for who they truly are, beyond the exterior veils. Some refuse. They are racist. Do not compensate for the ignorant by questioning yourself. Don’t ignore personal experience in the name of healing this national wound.
Then, bravely thrust yourself into new experiences to learn more. Do not let your judgments remain unreasonable. Strive to give every stranger — man, woman, or child — the benefit of a favorable opinion and equal standing. He deserves that, just as you do. Do this and you can stop questioning your part in the image being reflected in that mirror.