My father lived with my mother and me until I turned 7. Every Sunday, he and I would jump into the car, always an Oldsmobile, and we’d drive to the center of town to buy the newspaper. If the first vendor we met was black, my father drove on, until he came to a white man selling the news. I knew my father didn’t like black people, but I didn’t understand why. If I dared ask, his face crumpled, annoyed, as if someone had stepped on his toe. “Because they aren’t like us. That’s why.”
If I hadn’t gone to public school and mixed with children of many races, his words might have influenced me. I’m not saying his prejudice isn’t lurking inside my brain. I’m saying playing tag on the green lawn at Madison Elementary with “others” put my father’s feelings to the test. By the age of 7, I stopped listening to his opinions about race.
Should I credit my play with children of mixed backgrounds as the antidote against my father’s prejudice? I think it helped. Science thinks so, too. After all, we are influenced by our environment. (“The Pathology of Prejudice,” by Erika Hayasaki, The New Republic, Dec.2018, pg. 21.) But I’d be wrong to imagine my father left no mark on me. He, too, was part of my environment.
A suspicion of the “other” comes naturally to our species. Our brains, acutely sensitive to our surroundings, are quick to note the presence of a stranger. It’s a survival mechanism, one that allows emotion to interact with decision-making. Fear, research tells us, is at the heart of tribalism. (Ibid pg. 21.).
Throwing people together in the hope they will resolve their prejudices is no sure panacea, however. “Sensitivity Training,” for example, can backfire. People become resentful when they are made to feel guilty. (Ibid pg. 25.) Counseling has small effect on the heart and mind, and, surprisingly, appeals to empathy are equally impotent. (Ibid pg. 24.) The fertile ground for change is personal stimulus – “a family feud, a divorce, an abusive relationship…” (Ibid, pg. 24.)
If my mother hadn’t left my father, if I hadn’t escaped his vitriol day after day, year after year, would I be as I am now? I don’t know. What I do understand is that having been exposed to prejudice, a seed likely was planted. I’d be a fool to ignore the fact. Being aware keeps me vigilant, but it also makes me less willing to throw stones at those similarly infected.
Being prejudiced isn’t an intellectual decision. One can’t flick it off like a light switch. Once embedded in us, our survival instincts keep it alive. Pointing fingers at offenders won’t shame them into being better. As one repentant racist admitted, “I try and try, and I just can’t stop hating people.” (Ibid pg. 25)
I’ll say one thing for that repentant, he is confronting his demon. Others of us may not have the courage. But, if we refuse to examine ourselves, we could remain unaware of a dormant prejudice, or, at the very least, render ourselves incapable of understanding the fear behind prejudice — a fear that is difficult to cure because it infects not only the mind but our instinctive and visceral responses as well.
(First published 1/15/19)