Saturday, October 3, 2009

Prejudice, Bigotry

I just finished reading Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin. In 1959, Mr. Griffin medically darkened his skin and lived among the Negro population in the deep South as part of a research project on the prevailing state of racial prejudice and race relations at the time. His premise was that he would get a true picture of the situation in no other way. The Black people at the time, he feared, would not trust a white man enough to give him a true picture of how things were; nor would a white man in most cases be able to fully give his opinions in their truest sense.

The book, Black Like Me, was published in 1960 and is a journal style narration of Mr. Griffin's experiences, some of them quite shocking and dismaying.

The edition I read includes an epilogue written in 1977, in which Mr. Griffin elaborates on how the publishing of his book changed his life, how it fit in with the path the civil rights movement ended up taking, and the state of racial relations in America at that time.

One of the things that struck me throughout his narration, and then again while reading his epilogue, is that we all hold to prejudices. But not only racial prejudices.

From Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary
2 a (1) : preconceived judgment or opinion (2) : an adverse opinion or leaning formed without just grounds or before sufficient knowledge b : an instance of such judgment or opinion c : an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics

: the state of mind of a bigot
: acts or beliefs characteristic of a bigot

a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices; especially : one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance
Some thoughts about the above definitions,
-The noun, prejudice, also, does not specifically imply a negative notion or opinion. It simply means that one holds a certain opinion toward someone or something. But it has the added connotation of having been primarily used to refer to race relations and the negative assumptions one people group makes toward another.

-The word, bigotry, however, seems to include only the negative attitudes of a person or group of people toward another.

We all hold prejudices. It is the natural aggregate of our life and societal experiences. Prejudice is not only our opinions with regard to people or races. Prejudice is not always a wrong, or evil.

We all hold certain ideas of what proper clothes or habits are, for instance. Some people would refer to this kind of prejudice as a societal construct. Adhering to societal constructs in many cases is an act of love; it is something we do out of courtesy toward our friends and acquaintances. These societal norms can sometimes be irritating or binding. On the other hand, there are times, if a societal norm goes against God's laws, when we are compelled to go against those norms. Our adherence to such norms or constructs can be prejudice. And again, this is not always bad.

Some examples from my own experience.
  • The relation who said to my mother-in-law, "Oh, Joe homeschools his kids? I hope they immunize." The prejudice: no one who homeschools immunizes and those who don't immunize always homeschool.
  • My daughter's new friend who said, "You don't look like you were homeschooled." Apparently all homeschoolers look a certain way.
  • Myself, when I assumed that my eco-friendly brother-in-law was a vegetarian. Everyone who is strongly green is a vegetarian, right?
  • Or how about when I got to the hospital to deliver my last baby. Nurse: And what pregnancy is this for you? Mary: It's my tenth. Nurse: You're kidding, right? Mary: Why would I joke about that? Nurse: Well, you don't look like this is your tenth pregnancy. (I'm not sure what "10-kid mom" is supposed to look like.)
We all do this. All the time. Unintentionally. An most of the time it is not mean-spirited.

Consider for instance women with shaved or unshaved legs and armpits. In America, we women like our legs smooth and armpits hair free. (I think most American men like women that way, too.) In fact, it can be a bit embarrassing or even seem gross to see someone with hairy legs or armpits. It is a prejudice, "Hairy armpits are gross." This is fairly innocent. Hopefully we do not judge someone's person by this standard, however. That would cross the line between one's opinion of a particular habit, and basing one's entire opinion of a person who has such a habit, upon that habit. Most of us would probably say to ourselves something like, "This is a little weird for me. It kind of grosses me out. But I must give this person a fair shake."

Now take this same idea of shaven legs in a slightly different direction. Let's pretend we know a woman from Germany who does not shave. So when we meet someone who does not shave we might assume that person is German or European. This may or may not be the case, but it is a symptom of a prejudice we carry, based on our experience, "European ladies do not shave their legs, Americans do." Not always a true situation; a prejudice. Not necessarily evil or bad, but an opinion based on a limited experience. We would not be wrong, in the sense of evil, to hold this opinion, but we might appear ignorant or small-minded in some situations if we voiced this idea.

How about another angle. "Lesbians don't shave their legs." So when you meet someone who does not shave their legs, you assume she is a lesbian. This might be a bit more troublesome. Or you find out one of your friends is a lesbian and you say something like, "But you can't be a lesbian, you shave your legs!"

You see, these are all perceptions a person may carry without meaning any harm, but based upon our experiences. They can be hurtful, when applied improperly. But they are not necessarily wrong. We can't make ourselves more experienced than we are. We can't add to our life experiences just by saying we want to.

But we can be open to learning more about others, whether people of other races, or those of our own race with different habits and traditions than ourselves. We can listen to others and judge them on who they say they are and what they like and dislike. And we ought to approach people and attitudes that are different than our own with humility. We must use kindness in our dealings with others.

Now how about those times when we must address a prejudice because it is sinful to hold such a notion. There is right and wrong in the world and increasingly some are trying to blur the line that divides right from wrong.

As a Christian, I base my morality upon God's Word, the Bible. That is the foundation from which I must examine any prejudice I am called upon to judge.

"Is it wrong for a woman to work outside the home?" "Is it wrong for a man to shave his beard?" No, no, and no.

Some lifestyle choices are closely associated with behaviors that are wrong. "Is it wrong for a woman to glue spangles on her eyelashes or a man to put gems on his teeth?" This one is often associated with prostitution and pimping. Don't assume. Not everyone fits the stereotype.

When I was in college, I always wore my cross necklace. I was somewhat adrift in those years, but that was kind of my anchor. A concrete reminder of who I was, really. I remember when one of my friends told me that crystals were affiliated with some sort of holistic healing. I don't even remember what variety of healing. Pain relief or something, maybe. So I hung one around my neck on on the chain that had my cross. When later I found out that crystals were closely associated with New Age Religion, I was really embarrassed. Here I had symbolically equated Christianity with New Age mysticism. I'm glad none of my friends judged me because of that silliness.

About 15 or 20 years ago baggy pants and baseball caps on backwards was associated with gangstas. Perhaps still is, I'm kind of out of the loop on that one. But these clothing choices became mainstream. It would be wrong of us to assume every young man who wore baggy pants and a backwards cap was selling drugs.

"Is it wrong for a woman to sleep with her boyfriend when they are not married?" "Is homosexuality wrong?" "Is murder wrong?" Yes, yes, and again, yes. those are things we can judge on. They are not societal constructs or prejudice. But, when called upon, we must engage in judgments lovingly and with humility.

How about smoking or drinking? Women wearing pants? What about hunting? Or eating meat?

The list can go on and on. Judging a person based upon our own prejudice is wrong. Judging someone according to God's laws is not.

It's interesting that much of society today attributes stereotypes and bigotry to people of faith. People of faith have a foundation upon which to base their judgments. Those who don't, can only and always base their judgments upon one or another kind of prejudice.

May we as Christians never give fodder, by sinful prejudice, to those who want to label us as bigots. I pray that we only and always base our judgments of people upon God's holy law and apply them in accordance thereof.

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