Thursday, August 1, 2013

Prejudice—The Human Condition

I watched a fascinating TV documentary the other night that confirmed something I’ve believed for a long time: The human infant is not an empty vessel waiting to be filled with prejudice and bias by parents and “The Village.” A couple of very respected baby “labs” have conducted experiments that seem to indicate children as yet unable to speak or walk…or even crawl…demonstrate a preference for their own kind. In some cases, they even indicate a rejection (hostility?) of those who are different.

I grew up in a white house on a hill in small-town Oklahoma. What we called Colored Town was located three blocks behind us on the east side of the hill. Many of the coloreds walked past our house on the way downtown. Back in those days not many of us…black or white…had automobiles, so walking was the norm. (I walked to grade school, junior high, and high school.)

At any rate, when someone walked past, I thought nothing of it. I was ambivalent. A couple of other family members, however, would stand and make unflattering comments, sometimes yelling racial epithets. It wasn’t long before I felt morally superior. I, you see, wasn’t prejudiced. I could look at a colored and see a human being.

Why? My relatives and I shared the same gene pool. We had nearly identical environments. Our home experiences were similar. Shouldn’t we view “Other People” in the same way? If not, why?

I wasn’t perspicacious enough in those days to think things through, but I now believe it was because I, too, was a minority without realizing it. I grew up sickly and never learned to enjoy sports either as a participant or as a spectator. I was sissified. Oh, I had friends, but my relationship with them was somehow different. I was accepted, but not embraced. So I felt ostracized. My lifelong interest in and affinity for Native American cultures can probably be explained because I understood what a terrible tragedy the European-based invasion had been for them as a People and as Individuals. I empathized.

In local schools and in college, I had no meaningful contact with Others (after all segregation was in full swing), but the “No Coloreds Allowed” and “No Indians and Dogs Admitted” and “Whites Only” signs one saw in those days were offensive. In Army boot camp at Ft. Bliss, Texas, my best friend was Mitch, a black man. We went everywhere together…on base. I often suggested we go to a movie in El Paso, but he always begged off. It took a while to realize he declined because he would have been relegated to the balcony while I sat in the auditorium.

So here I was, an emancipated, racially prejudice-free white man willing and eager to embrace any and all races and cultures. Enlightened and morally superior (at least in this).

Then came the night of February 26, 2012 when seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, a black youth, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. I was incensed, outraged. Then I became flabbergasted and puzzled. How could anyone not see the injustice? That travesty has now played itself out in court, and even though I believe the verdict was wrong, the judgment has been made and is behind us.

What is not settled, is the claim “Race” played no part in Mr. Zimmerman’s role. Of course, it did. It plays a part in most of our actions and interactions with others. It is born into us. It is innate. It lies unseen and often unfelt in our very bosoms. Until….

President Obama recently spoke out on the subject and said something that was devastating to me. He noted that as a youth, he and any other young black could hear the automobile door locks click as he walked down the street.

Good Lord! That was me driving one of those cars. Me…morally superior Mark Wildyr. I had done just such a thing when I saw a black man…or a Hispanic…or an Indian walking toward me. Once again, why? Well, I didn’t like the way he looked, or his walk was aggressive, or we were isolated, or….

All of that may be true. But underlying it all was my inbred fear of the “different.” We’re all that way, I guess. I have a friend who’s a pretty sharp cookie. She believes we operate on two levels. Level One is the subconscious, which dictates 80 percent of our actions, and Level Two is our conscious. She also believes that time wise, our ability to perform at Level Two is limited. That is why we “run out of steam,” so to speak. I think it takes a sustained effort by our relatively feeble Level Two to overcome the prejudices (whatever they might be) dictated by Level Two.

And to make things perfectly clear, I believe all the races harbor this serpent in the breast. Whites, blacks, yellows, reds, and browns (Isn't that sort of racist, too?) instinctively cling to their own kind. Natural and understandable so long as we don't let it get in the way of living daily in a multicultural world.

All of this is theoretical (at least on my part), and doesn’t delve into the personal experiences that shape our reactions to things. Both of the relatives mentioned earlier ended up as law enforcement officers in Texas, and they truly believe their attitudes on race were formed by dealing with the worst of the worst offenders, which were often black. But I keep remembering them standing in our yard and hurling insults to blacks on their way to town…when we were just children.

Note: New posts are published around the first of every month.

Comments are welcome, not only on this post, but also about any relevant subject the reader wishes to discuss.


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