Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Realizing My Own Prejudice


Hello on this overcast chilly morning. First, I’ll share some news today. Then I’ll relate the story of how I discovered I was prejudiced against people of color.

The news:
·      Last Saturday, a fellow blogger, whom I greatly respect, posted a story linked to the following site: wolfirschhorn. You can find the original story there or a repeat of it on Melynda’s blog. I believe the story, which is an example of medical bias, is important for all of us because of its grave implications.
·      Many of you have read comments by Fishducky on my blog. Here’s her comment on Melynda’s blog for the story I am encouraging you to read. She’s given me permission to quote it. “ . . .  Should you be more eligible for any medical procedure if your IQ is 130 than if it was 120? If your hair is curly rather than straight? If you still have all your limbs or if you had to have one amputated? If you skin happens to be white instead of brown, yellow, or red?”
·      If you look to the right you’ll see the cover of The Golden Sky by EC Stilson. Elisa and I have become friends and it is an honor for me to promote her memoir. It speaks to anyone who has ever loved a child. This poignant story, fierce in its honesty, also relates what happens to parents when a child dies. Ultimately, The Golden Sky is a memoir of courage and renewal. It speaks to all of us who embrace the possibility of becoming fully human.
           
(Continued from Saturday . . . )
The story of my prejudice:
After leaving the convent, I worked for a publishing firm in Dayton and then at an all-girls Catholic high school. In May of 1968, while walking home after school, I saw a man standing at the corner mailbox. It was a rectangular box on a pillar. The letter slot at the top was long and narrow. Inserting a legal sized letter by its short width, not its long length, was always easier.


I searched and searched for a photograph
of a US Postal Service letter box from the 1960s.
This is as close as I could get, but it doesn’t have the slot.

            The man was trying to insert his letter by the long length. It kept getting caught at the side of the slot. Immediately, a jumble of thoughts skittered through my mind: He needs help. He doesn’t know that you have to insert the skinny end.
            Behind these thoughts lay another layer of nebulous feelings: That poor black man can’t figure out how to do that. I know and I’ll show him how.
            At that moment, the man deftly inserted the narrow side into the letterbox slot and ambled away. I stood stunned, having suddenly realized that I thought he was “slow on the uptake” because he was black. The realization stupefied me because I thought I considered all human beings equal and didn’t notice color.
            And yet I’d thought that thought. I couldn’t get away from my own bias. I’d based my opinion of the man’s capabilities on the color of his skin. Where had that prejudice come from?
            Perhaps no white person raised in Missouri between 1936, when I was born, and 1958, when I went away to the convent, was immune to such thoughts.  I don’t know. I do remember—rather vividly—that I was aware of the words Amos and Andy as I stood there looking at the letterbox.  
            As a child, I’d listened to the radio program Amos and Andy. Two white actors played the roles of two black men. Amos was hard working and bright. Andy was gullible and, I’d always thought, just a little slow in understanding Amos’s plans for solving any problem that came along.
            So the thought behind the thought behind the thought—the miasma of racism lurking within—was that blacks were not as intelligent as whites. Never mind that Amos had been extraordinarily bright and creative. I clearly based all black men on Andy.
            The next day, I called the Dayton school district and applied for a job in an inner-city public school. I wanted to teach black students so that I might rid myself of the rottenness within my thoughts. I’d never taught any black students or lived among any black families. I needed to be among blacks.
            I wanted those students to help me rid myself of bias. I didn’t stop to think that my prejudice might influence my teaching and harm the students. I was thinking only of myself and my need to let go of bigotry.
            In Thursday’s posting I’ll relate to you what happened in that classroom.
                                                            (Continued on Thursday . . . )

Photograph from Wikepedia.

45 comments:

  1. Fear and ignorance, racism and prejudice: the cost to humanity has been devastating. Your intelligence and and your ability to assess your motives and character, as well as your commitment to honest self-evaluation make this series of posts important lessons for all of us. Thank you for making us think...

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    1. Dear Broad,
      Thank you for your kind words. You know I've had the help of four psychiatrists and counselors who have helped me learn how to make honest assessments of what I've done. So many people don't have the help they need to learn how to stand outside their own actions and review them. And often fear of what others will think keeps us being expressing our deepest thoughts. I've had some advantages that many others haven't had.

      Peace.

      Delete
  2. This was a difficult post for me to read. Regardless of my comment above, which I FULLY BELIEVE, you made me think of the few times in the past when I shared your feelings. I am ashamed to admit there were some. I don't feel that way now--but you DID make me remember. I thank you for that.

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    1. Dear Fishducky,
      Thank you for giving me permission to quote you today. I hope you are gracious to yourself about your own past thoughts. Resolving to feel differently now--that's the important thing.

      Peace.

      Delete
  3. I never thought of myself as prejudiced, but then I grew up in an all white suburb in an all white school in Minnesota. I had no personal knowledge or experience. So when a group of black boys followed me around at the state fair calling me Snow White and Blondie...I was scared. And I realized, similar to your recognition, that I was even more scared than if it had been a group of white boys because they were so unfamiliar to me...and they knew it...and were trying to scare me even more. It was an eye opening experience.

    I am dying to know what you did and what you learned! I love your honesty and open dialogue. You inspire me. :):)

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    1. Dear Rita,
      How terrifying for you that must have been. And it's so true that when we are raised in classrooms with only one color and when we live in neighbors of only one color we begin to fear that which or those who look different. It is an eye opening experience when we move away from the ghetto of whiteness.

      Peace.

      Delete
  4. It is shocking when we realize we harbor prejudice, isn't it? And I think we all do, to some degree. The important thing is acknowledging it and addressing it. I honestly believe that it all stems from our desire to separate ourselves from what we see as the fate of others - our fears that if we are similar to others, we might share their pitfalls and troubles. By placing ourselves 'above' them (even in our minds), we can somehow insulate ourselves from pain or trouble.

    I think going to work in a school populated by black children was exactly the right thing to do. It is through our individual stories that we come together. I'll bet you heard some pretty amazing stories!

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    1. Dear Kari,
      I did hear amazing stories, but then every teacher does in every classroom throughout the world. That's because the experiences of each student is so different from every other. To teach is to learn such great lessons about humanity. I am so grateful that the convent sent me out to teach. I don't think I would have ever had that opportunity if I hadn't been in the convent.

      Peace.

      Delete
  5. This is the reason I'm so glad I grew up in Sweden from 1940 on. Not because Swedes are any less racist than anyone else, but at the time there were no people of color living there. Hence nothing unusual to be afraid of or to teach your children to discriminate against. In elementary school everyone was Swedish, mostly blond and blue eyed like me. A family on our street fostered a Jewish refugee child. She was so unusual there, we never played with her, I don't know why, but I do remember her large black eyes. Then in high school, there were some more Jewish girls, but none in my class. No black kids at all. I was 12 years old when I saw black men for the first time. And they were the greatest at what they did. They were the Jamaican 4x100 meters running team that came to town after the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki and ran at our stadium. I believe they were the gold medal winners. I was enormously impressed. I think your motives were good in wanting to reach out and teach in black schools. We may stumble along, but as long as our hearts are in the right place.....

    Did you know that if you are in a car accident, no doctor will see you? At least no one in our town or in nearby Bakersfield, CA. Someday, I will post about my horrendous experience after I had a car accident in 2010. I had to get a lawyer in order to get medical care.

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    1. Dear Inger,
      I do so hope you will post about your experience with the medical profession after your car accident. We need to know about injustice done to one another.

      Peace.

      Delete
  6. It lurks under the surface sometimes and rears its ugly head when we least expect it. I still think prejudicial thoughts from time to time, and am so wanting to get completely beyond it. I just came back from the grocery store in our little town and a white woman was with a black man. I smiled and said hello to them as we walked by each other, but I sensed that the checkouts were less than friendly to them. If I sensed it, perhaps they did, too. It's so hard to see it still so prevalent. I'm glad you're tackling this subject with your own experiences. It really needs to be out in the light of day so we can deal with it openly and honestly.

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    1. Dear Teresa,
      Have you ever read the poem "The Man He Killed" by Thomas Hardy? It is such a reflection on how we hurt one another because we see ourselves on one side or the other of some argument or difference. It can apply to a war--as the poem does--or to Civil Rights or the issue of abortion or anything that divides us into two camps.
      The final stanza of the five-stanza poem is as follows:
      "Yes; quaint and curious war is!
      You shoot a fellow down
      You'd treat, if met where any bar is,
      Or help to half-a-crown."

      Peace

      Delete
  7. Dee, your honesty is searing and makes me examine my own attitudes and prejudices more closely than ever. Why am I not surprised to read that your instinctive response to your own latent racism was to apply to work in a black neighbourhood? I can't wait for Thursday.....

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    1. Dear Perpetua,
      That Thursday posting is now only a day away and I'm wondering how I'll tell the story so that readers will truly appreciate what I learned from those students. Please send me some good thoughts and vibes. Prayers even. So that I might write well and do those students and that experience justice.

      Peace.

      Delete
  8. No matter how much we deny it, we all have prejudices. It is not always about race, it could be politics, religion, height, weight, age, haircolor, size of mole on one's nose and so on and so on. Be it because of jealousy, misunderstanding, or ignorence, something triggers this "thing" in all mankind. Our eyes can not be closed nor our ears covered to what is around us and what we were taught. We should not beat ourselves up over a loss in judgement, but rather learn and do better the next time. It is through our faults and mistakes that we find growth.

    You are a woman with so many experiences who has seen and witnessed much. You are a magnificent example to all of us.

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    1. Dear Arleen,
      What you've said reflects the wisdom of thinking deeply about all this over your life. It is as you say "through our faults and mistakes that we find growth." The mystery is why some of us are able to grow and others aren't. Is it fear of change? I don't know. Maybe fear of setting out into the unknown.

      Peace.

      Delete
    2. Dear Arleen,
      Please look below at Sandi's comment. Yours helped her think her own thoughts about all this.

      Peace.

      Delete
  9. Your kindness, problem-solving skills and genuine love are amazing. I wish more people could be like you.

    P. S. thank you so much for the mention. You're so sweet. :0)

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    1. Dear Elisa,
      And I wish that more people could have friends like you. You've been willing to change and grow and journey into the unknown. You're a model for all of us.

      Peace.

      Delete
  10. Thank you Dee for reposting this! I second what Elisa said.

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    1. Dear Melynda,
      And thank you for drawing my attention to this story through your blog.

      Peace.

      Delete
  11. You own the things you've done, thought, felt...many people claim they do, but, alas... I also think you conceptualize better than many can. ~Mary

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    1. Dear Mary,
      I tend to think that my early childhood experience of feeling abandoned by my parents led me to an introspection that in the long run has been a blessing in my life. It's another example of how everything has seemed to work out unto good in my life. For me, that's one of the perks/pluses/joys of growing older: I have a longer life to look back on and to see the working out to good of things that at first appeared to be so negative and hurtful.

      Peace.

      Delete
  12. Thanks for a wonderful yet humbling read. Predudice can be awful. I once lived in a very coloured community I wasn't predudiced about them it was the other way round.

    Yvonne.

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    1. Dear Yvonne,
      I suspect that most of us fear that which seems different--because of color or skill or religion. It's when we see one another as partner in growth that we can let go of prejudice. Or so I think.

      Peace.

      Delete
  13. I look forward to hearing of your experiences. Sometimes when we go looking for answers, they come to us in ways we never expected. But that's the human condition, isn't it?

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    1. Dear DJan,
      You've said this so well. It is the human condition. Out of death--of anything--can come life.

      Peace.

      Delete
  14. Dear Dee,
    It is not surprising at all that you would recognize a momentary prejudice and determine to teach yourself deeper lessons. Your way of expressing such a brief encounter is thought provoking as always.
    Many excellent comments have been left that leave me with the thought as Starting Over . . . stated, we all fall victim to prejudice, in myriad ways.
    Thank you for broaching this subject with such openness and honesty. I'm looking forward to the next edition!

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    1. Dear Sandi,
      You are always so generous with your comments. Thank you for your kind words.
      And I so hope that all is going well for you in your teaching.

      Peace.

      Delete
  15. This was a great post...it's never easy to admit we have prejudice...I think the truly loving person can have prejudice, but the difference is they see it as something they'd like to change in themselves.

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    1. Dear Stephanie,
      Thank you, I'd like to think of myself as a loving person who found something I wanted to change in myself. That inner-city school helped me do that. But of course, I'm sure that there is still biases lurking within me. I wonder if we can ever be rid of them.

      Peace.

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  16. Dee, I really love your openness to growth and your humility in admitting to thoughts and feelings we've all had, but have trouble admitting. We all have prejudices -- many of them learned in our earliest years from parents and family or society. I listened to a tape recording recently of me talking with my father when I was three years old. I told him that I disliked my mother's youngest sister Ruth. He sounded surprised and asked "Why?" And I said "She has such a dumb little boy! George is really stupid!" I heard that with a rush of shame and thought about how often I had thought that in my growing years. It took a lot of time and maturity to realize that my cousin George may not have been book-smart, but that he was and is a wonderful person whose emotional intelligence shines. I think that learning to value people as they are is one of the most important challenges we face in life.

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  17. Dear Kathy,
    Thank you for sharing your story about a three-year-old you complaining about your cousin. So many people it seems to me mistake book-smart for heart-smart. Your last line is inspiring.

    Peace.

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  18. I have come to expect honest and moving posts from you. This one rocked me back on my heels. I think that all of us have prejudices, ones we have been taught, ones we have acquired as we move through life, and your willingness to not only admit it but to try and address it is inspiring.

    A common prejudice here, and perhaps there, is against people with disabilities and specifically those with mental health problems. This despite statistical data which indicates that they are more likely to be subjected to violence than to be the perpetrators.

    In my work (voluntary) as a telephone counsellor I try and listen to everybody and anybody with an open mind. Nonetheless sometimes I still smack face first into a brick wall preventing communication which I had not realised was there. A learning experience, each and every time.

    Please forgive my loooooong comment, and thank you for another wonderful post.

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    1. Dear EC,
      Your comment "rocked ME back on my heels"! You've put your finger on one of the ism of today. The "ism" that looks at children who are different from what people like to think of as the "norm" and finds these children, these adults, wanting. We have racism and classism and all kinds of "isms" to cover all the biases we develop about people who seem to differ from us. If only we could look and see samenesses how different life would be.

      Thank you so much for sharing your voluntary work experience. It's experiences like that--if we can reflect on them--that help us grow into the fullness of humanity to which we are called.

      Peace.

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  19. Interesting that you felt you needed to live among black people to free yourself of prejudice.
    Having become aware of it was the first step towards that goal, surely?

    I'll have to see what follows to understand, I suppose.

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    1. Dear Friko,
      I hope my next few postings will explain more fully why I felt teaching in an inner-city school was important for me.

      Peace.

      Delete
  20. Dee, I think many of us have spent years trying to understand and decode some very subtle messages that seeped into our thinking as children. Your resolve to do something so specific as to work in an inner city school to impact your own awareness just seems remarkable to me. I have always heard quite the reverse, going into a particular situation to "help others" in some way, but you sure did take down that divide! Wow!

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    1. Dear Debra,
      Well, I've had advantages in life and one of those has been been able to afford to meet with counselors and psychiatrists. So I've learned to watch for emerging patterns in my thinking. When those patterns bring contentment I choose to keep them. When they harm me or others, then I weed them out. Thus, the inner-city school.

      Peace.

      Delete
  21. I grew up across the river in Illinois. I never saw a black person until I was a junior in highschool. And, yes, the prejudice in the community was the same as in Missouri.
    Amazing how we can see how totally horrible that is now.

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    1. Dear Susan,
      Like you, I saw few blacks when I was growing up. Independence, Missouri, had hispanics (we called them "Mexicans" back in the '40s) but few blacks. Mostly my philosophy of social justice was untested. On that day in Dayton, Ohio, I saw clearly, stunningly, that a bias had festered in me for years. Fortunately I was able to do something about that because the school district was willing to take a chance on me.

      Peace.

      Delete
  22. Nicely written, Dee. Even tho I was raised not to be prejudice, I believe we are all prone to have such thoughts. We must remain vigilant so it does not become a habit.
    Hugs,
    Pam :)

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    1. Dear Pam,
      Yes. Constant vigilance.

      Peace.

      Delete
  23. But with am open mind you may end up doing both you and your pupils some good:)

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  24. I am so glad to find this discussion here. Just the other day I read this woman's plea to people of all races to start talking about our racism. Her article, and Attorney General Holder's speech, to which she links, are informative, telling and inspiring.

    Thank you for opening this discussion.

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