Me: "I don't care if you're gay, trans, or bisexual, that's your business, but if you pick mushrooms off of pizza, I'm gonna judge you and think you're an extremely immature individual."
Friend: "That might be the most honest statement I've ever heard."
Me: "Hey, I know my morals are often hypocritical; there's definitely a sliding scale with no rhyme or reason; and that my morals often revolve around me judging someone."
Are you this honest with yourself? Do you even realize when you're judging someone because of their race? their food preference? who they love? Do you? One of the great gifts studying anthropology has given me is the ability to look into my own mind. I can see just how much I'm influenced by the world around me-- and even more so, how that world teaches me to judge others.
Let me give an example. The other night I was riding the bus home from a friend's house. It was about 10:30pm. I walked on and immediately my mind is assessing the situation. I went down the rows mentally evaluating each person: are they a threat? do I have to watch them? should I maybe sit away from said person? does this person look like they have bed bugs? should I not be reading my book with my cochlear implant off in case something happens? do I feel safe?
You may think this seems a bit extreme, or even out of character since I'm not one to really be paranoid about safety, germs, etc. Now, I don't consciously go through each question like a checklist. Rather, it happens in a split second. That night on the bus, while going through my checklist, I quickly realized I was the only white person on the bus. Literally. There was one Hispanic looking lady, me, and then about a dozen African Americans. Some were couples; about half were men. Luckily, that night, I didn't feel threatened or nervous so I took my usual seat, busted out the African mythology book I was nerd-ing out on, and read away.
There have been times though where I did judge people on the bus based on their skin color, appearance, facial expressions. Stereotyping is a primitive instinct. It dates back to our early ancestors whose survival instincts lead them to judge situations and persons quickly, often relying on what they previously have experienced. I call this their catalog of "how to interact with other humans". It is similar too but different from the catalogs of "dangerous animals" "don't eat that, Joey died from eating that", "weather patterns", etc. We needed these catalogs to survive and the idea has stuck with us thousands of years later.
Time for another story-- I live in downtown Denver where it is not uncommon to pass upwards to 30+ homeless people on my way to/from work. Normally I pass by them without any feelings, each of us going about our own business. However, there's recently been a string of attacks on the mall where a homeless person (or several) attacks someone. I was watching the news early about this said situation. That same day, as I was walking my usual route home, I could tell I was feeling nervous, unsafe. I made a point to walk more quickly pass the homeless crowds that were gathered. Tried not to make eye contact, or tried to do so in order to say "don't beat me up please". Again, I'm not saying this was a conscious choice on my part. If I was not more aware of myself and my own reality, I probably wouldn't have thought anything of it. But I am very aware of my own prejudices, or my own reactions to things. Therefore, I knew there was a problem.
The problem is this: the news I watch, the stories I fill my mind with directly affect my interactions with others. You might think this is common sense. But do you realize that it affects your subconscious reactions as well? That all those news articles, conversations with friends, and movie blockbusters get filed away into your mind. They become part of that catalog of experience we turn to when entering any given situation I mentioned earlier. Watching a news story about unstable homeless populations makes me skittish around homeless people. Reading a letter from a rape victim makes me uncomfortable around men. Watching a movie about slavery makes me hate white people. Watching a chick flick makes me irrationally upset when a guy doesn't declare his love for me while filling my room with roses and whatever else happens in chick flicks. Watching a TV show where the terrorists are always Middle Eastern makes me wonder about every student I see from the ESL school at work. What we fill our mind with matters.
My mother told of an experience she recently had at work. She was washing her hands in the bathroom when a fellow employee, African American, was doing the same thing. This woman was using the paper towel to clean up the water mess she made when a white woman walked in. Without second though perhaps, this white woman called the African American woman out, complaining about something that needed to be cleaned in the hallway. The white woman didn't see that this Africa American woman was probably wearing nice office clothes; she didn't see that the woman was simply washing her hands. She saw a dark skinned person with a paper towel in their hands and assumed "housekeeping".
You can blame this on rural Pennsylvania. You could make assumptions about this white woman-- maybe she's a racist, or has only know African American maids, or just wasn't thinking. But the truth is somewhere in her catalog entitled "how to interact with other humans", the idea that black people are cleaners is in there.
I recently had an argument with my boss. I was trying to say that everyone is a little bit racist. Or, to borrow from Avenue Q: "Everyone's a little bit racist/ sometimes./ doesn't mean we go/around committing hate crimes./ look around and you'll find/no one's really color blind./ maybe it's a fact/ we all should face/ everyone makes judgments/ based on race." He argued to say that this wasn't so.
Me: "Don't we make assumptions about every person we see?"
Boss: "Yes but that just makes you prejudice, not racist."
Me: "If we gain our prejudices from the media and the media is racist-- wouldn't it follow that our prejudices are racist?"
My boss finally conceded on this point, but I could tell the idea made him uncomfortable. We live in a society filled with people who are uncomfortable with the idea that we could be racist, we could be bigoted, we could be hypocrites, and we could be like the white lady from my mom's work. We don't want to be them. We want to be progressive, we want to be better than our grandparents and the slave owners.
Well, we can be better. Any addict knows that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. If you can't set yourself face to face with your own weakness, you will never stay clean. Even after that, you might have to down deep, step after step, to examine your own psyche to not just put a band- aid over the problem, to not just abstain but to actually solve that which is haunting you. One of my favorite quotes about racism comes from Chris Rock: "We treat racism in this country like it's a style that America went through. Like flared legs or lava lamps. 'Oh that crazy thing we did. We were hanging black people.' We treat it like a fad instead of a disease that eradicated millions of people."
In order for our society as a whole to be better, we as individuals must be better. We must be more anxiously engaged in filling our catalogs with positive stereotypes. Warning: I'm not saying to fill your minds with rainbows and butterflies so that we don't learn to see warning signs as such and therefore land ourselves in dangerous situations. I'm simply saying not every Hispanic doesn't speak English; not every African American is going rob me at gun point; not every Caucasian is intelligent; not every guy wearing saggy pants is an uneducated hooligan; not every woman with fake nails and dyed hair is a ditz; not every man is going to rape me; not every woman is going to support me.
I could go on and on but I'll stop here. I think you get what I'm trying to say. I don't know all the answers. I don't know how to solve all the problems our country is facing right now but I do know (and this I believe with all my heart) that unless we, as individuals, can look ourselves in the mirror and say, openly and honestly "I judge people for picking mushrooms off their pizza. And I sometimes judge the African American I see wearing his pants down to his ankles. And sometimes I judge the white girl dressed in a skintight dress heading to the club at midnight. And sometimes I make assumptions about the homeless, or the black girl, or that taxi driver, or the overweight man on the bus, or the cosplay girl at the convention center," then our country is never going to get better because I will never see that the problem is me.