Confronting Prejudice: Whose Job Is It?

Prejudice isn't going away on it's own. Now what do we do about it?

Apparently my family can't move these days without tripping over prejudice.  At least the prejudice has been diverse- there's something.

Two weeks ago, some select homeschooling parents on an email list I was on couldn't abide their children being in the same public space as teenagers in a Gay Straight Alliance selling baked goods for a fundraiser.  (I've talked about it, but this piece does a nice job of it from another perspective.)  Most galling was that they, straight out of the first season of Mad Men, asserted that everyone should be "comfortable".  Homophobia- check.

Last month, last week, it was the policing around Elizabeth Warren's ancestry.  I'm not going to debate what Harvard Law School should or should not have claimed to make themselves look more diverse (although perhaps I just gave my opinion away), but I am going to repeat that many of Scott Brown's supporters have been nothing short of bigoted in their attacks on Elizabeth Warren.  The crux of their argument seems to be, "She's a blonde, blue-eyed white woman.  Use your common sense.  Duh!"  Which just goes to show how uncommon good sense can be sometimes.  Yes, it is entirely possible for someone to have a non-European ancestor and still present as "white".  The updated version of the one-drop rule- check.

There was this one day last week when the world seemed like it was going to be a less primitive place.  I was off the email list, and Suffolk University had just published a poll that said, in effect, Warren's heritage was a non-issue for 69% of the voters.  It was on this day that I told one of my daughters that she was going to a free class in a subject I knew she was interested in.  As expected, this produced a little anxiety.  Always a bit of an introvert, being bullied last year has made her that much more leery of people.  I understood that, but this was two hours out of her life and there was no harm in trying.

Boy did I have to eat my words that night.

Two hours was enough time for an older teenager to use the word "Jewish" as a slur.  (How this came up in the context of a how-to class mystifies me.)  Did I mention that my daughter is Jewish?

Anti-semitism- check.

Guess what?  I'm a little leery of people now too.

LGBTQ teenagers- children- who want to sell a cookie are not going to transmit their sexual orientation through their cupcakes.  (I can prove it: LGBTQ people have eaten cupcakes I've made and NOT suddenly become straight.)  Their mere presence is not going to affect your- or your child's- orientation either.  (Again, I can prove it: my oldest is still straight, despite spending time around not-straight people.)  What being around those kids and their parents might do, however, is make you see that they are as human as you are... but maybe I shouldn't get too ambitious today.

I'm kind of horrified not just that people are bigoted about race and ethnicity but that they are literally so ignorant.  Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of genetics would know that sometimes the genes we express don't necessarily reflect all of the genes we inherited.  They would also know that we also don't necessarily get all of the genes our ancestors had to pass along.  Genes and inheritance are funny, funny things.  (If you don't believe me, maybe you'll believe Charles Mann.)  But this- ignorance- is what happens when we treat education like a business that should be achieving economies of scale for decades.

As for what is "Jewish", where do I start?  Is it the old chestnut about people being stingy, cheap, ungenerous or generally obsessed with money?  Considering how many times in history Jews have been told to liquidate their holdings at a big loss or simply forfeit their property on their way out- if they're lucky- who's got an issue with money again?  (I'm choking on that stereotype in particular because a friend recently told me about exactly that happening to her in-laws.  Not 80 years ago in Europe, but 30 years ago in Iran.)  Is it that we're all socialists or communists?  Paul Wolfowitz will be so disappointed.  Is it that we're all capitalist pigs?  Tell that to any of the Jewish kids who protested at any of the Occupy demonstrations- or in Israel.  But why am I expecting a teenager to be thinking about a former Undersecretary of Defense/President of the World Bank, the Occupy movement, Israel or, you know, history?

These are all self-evident points, aren't they?  So why does this keep coming up?  It's enough to make me want to indulge my daughter and stay holed up in my home.  I mean, that'll work.  Nothing bad ever happens to people who shut themselves in, right?

And yet... for as many parents who opposed children expressing themselves, there were as many if not more who defended them.  Further, while there's an ugly group of people on the internet who are covering themselves in muck over Warren's heritage- see #Fauxcohontas on Twitter as an example- the Suffolk poll shows that while 72% knew about the issue, only 27% of them cared.  It also showed that it's hurt Brown's chances, lowering his lead from 49-40 to 48-47.  And although I am disgusted that anyone over the age of four doesn't have the good judgment not to use ethnic slurs, the adult in the room shot the teenager down before he could get any further.

It's not perfect and it's not where I thought we'd be 25 years ago, but maybe I can live with it.

Understandably, my daughter doesn't want to go back to the class.  When I was her age, that treatment would have made me angry, and I would have gone back to prove that they couldn't make me stay away.  Now, as an adult, I also think that she should go back because those people are never going to learn how wrong they are if they don't interact with her.  But this is at war with every instinct I have as a parent, and it's ultimately not fair to make her responsible for sixteen or more years of missed opportunities and bad education.

But whose job is it?  It's too late for the adult bigots, but it shouldn't be too late for the kids.

Open to suggestions.

This post also appeared on the author's blog.





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Andrea Cherez May 29, 2012 at 03:15 PM
This is the second great reality check piece on prejudice that I've read in the past week. The other is a letter by Ifé Franklin in the current JP Gazette. Hopefully, writing like this will continue to open a few eyes at a time to the hurt caused by casual and ignorant slurs, especially to children. Changing adults' beliefs is a very tough sell but maybe in a school setting, when prejudice rears up, it might be possible to take a five or ten minute time out to discuss and break down word bombs as they occur to slowly defuse them. Or maybe not. I don't know; I haven't been in a school setting for a looong time, but I enjoy making helpful suggestions. : )
Chris Helms May 29, 2012 at 05:59 PM
Thanks, Andrea. For those of you who missed it, here's a link to the letter in the Gazette: http://jamaicaplaingazette.com/2012/05/25/letter-racist-comments-part-of-the-new-jp/


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