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Maxed Out: The long fight against prejudice

racism prejudice MAX
"Giving voice to our prejudices—occasional, rare, heated voice—doesn’t make us racists or misogynistic assholes. Makes us human."

“You’ve got to be taught, before it’s too late
Before you are six, or seven, or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

– Rodgers & Hammerstein, 1949

The prejudice I harbour I learned at home… at a young age. The rest of it I just picked up along the way from the usual sources: media, friends, literature, and the propagandistic teachings of public school.

The statistical distortions represented within my very un-random sampling of real-life prejudice were coloured by the very lack of colour in my real world. Mine was a vanilla upbringing. The neighbourhoods I lived in were homogenous, Caucasian tracts just around the block from Beaver Cleaver’s house. There were tons of white boys and girls.

There were no black people in any of the worlds I lived in. None in the ‘hood, none in school, none in church, none at the grocery store and, not surprisingly, none on the television. Black people were called coloured people by polite society at that time, and various words by quite a few people in impolite society, words that’ll get you fired from your job these days.

I learned most of those words from my grandfather, who was oblivious to the profound depths of his own prejudices, racial being only one in a grab bag that included assorted ethnicities, women, religions, locales, languages, foods, automobiles, fishing tackle and, well, just about anything one might harbour a prejudice against or predisposition towards. 

In those early days of black-and-white television, not many years after Jackie Robinson had broken the colour barrier in professional baseball and long after the boxing ring had largely come to be dominated by black boxers, my darkest lessons of racial intolerance were absorbed during Friday night’s Gillette Cavalcade of Sports. I’ve never been certain whether my grandfather was a fight fan or if it was just something he did to make Friday night bleed into Saturday morning, but I watched enough boxing with him for the memories of it to seem voluminous. But then, I was probably five years old.

He didn’t have a favourite fighter. He just had a hierarchy of prejudices. On the rare nights when there was a white guy in the ring, he’d want the white guy to win. I’m sure there were times two white guys fought and those nights I don’t think he really cared who won unless one of them had a funny-sounding foreign name and the other one was named Smith or something very vanilla. White guys were always favoured. Italians—not what he called them—were okay, especially if they were fighting a coloured guy… who he never called a coloured guy. Wasn’t polite enough.

When two black guys were fighting, he seemed to harbour a wistful fantasy about seeing them both land simultaneous knockout blows.

The prejudice of my grandfather was watered down in my father. Not enough, but enough to give me hope. His life spanned profound changes in North American society. His international exposure helped him overcome much of the poison injected into his soul when he was a kid.

I believe the pool of my own prejudice has been diluted still further. Like the religion I was exposed to as a child, the baggage remains. I just refuse to carry it.

When they finally appeared in my world, age eight, I made friends with people of colour. Chicanos and Native Americans first, since we moved to the southwest. Blacks later, after I discovered in high school and university we had more in common than I ever imagined and, notwithstanding having lived their lives under a repressive shadow of overt racism, were willing to befriend a bleached-out white kid who was happy to deal with them evenhandedly and maybe even become friends.

But the cesspool of deeply-ingrained prejudices are still there. All these years later. Like a drop of iodine in a gallon of water, they taint the largely unknown volumes of my unconscious, they bubble toward the surface at the most unexpected of times, the surface being the dim gloaming of my conscious thoughts. Even at that unspoken, unacted-upon level, they shame me and leave me feeling diminished. They remind me how little I—and presumably all humankind—have really evolved. They help explain things like the rise of anti-Asian violence, ever-present anti-Semitism, sexism, oppression of gender-fluid people, acts of blind prejudice great and small.

I’ll never drive them out. You’ll never drive yours out. For the most part, I’ll never even understand what all of them are; neither will you. The sad fact is this: the best we can hope for, the most enlightened we can be is to keep them at bay and not act on them. Right now. And for the next five minutes. And the next 24 hours. And the next week. One minute at a time. If we can make it through today without giving light and air to those prejudices, that’s as much as we can hope for. That’ll make us good people. Today. That’s enough to back up the boast: “I’m not a racist.” Even if, at some level, we all are.

It’s good enough because there is a wide void between being prejudiced and being a racist, or a sexist, or an anti-Semite, or... name your poison.  

But sometimes, rarely with good luck, never with great luck, we might slip. Stress, depression, fatigue, agitation, war, some combination of forces that drive us to the edge of human-ness will open a portal between unconscious and conscious. We’ll find ourselves thinking, “You damn (insert any one of many prejudicial epithets here)” maybe even whispering it as we’re cut off in traffic, aced out of a scarce parking spot, slammed into on the mountain, watching the news, whatever. The target might be any of the people our relatives hated. These days, might be a Russian. Doesn’t matter. Shine a strong light on your own cesspool and you’ll understand what I mean.

But a momentary eruption of what lies in our unconscious does not an “” make.  

Giving voice to our prejudices—occasional, rare, heated voice—doesn’t make us racists or misogynistic assholes. Makes us human. But there shouldn’t be a free pass. Any time we let that vile poison out is a time we deserve the opprobrium of those around us. But absent a clear pattern, a human screwup doesn’t deserve a permanent branding, cancellation. Intolerance is just another ugly prejudice, one that fuels mobs, one that demands consequences far beyond the offense, one that makes lynching seem reasonable. Intolerance is its own vile shortcoming.

Just one hour, one day at a time, people. Our world will be a better place for it.