Shall we overcome?

I read an interesting column by New York Times columnist Charles Blow about racial prejudice this morning. In it, Blow talks about the innate negative bias whites seem to have against blacks, even when they are trying not to be prejudiced. He mentions Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent speech in which he accused America of being a “nation of cowards” because we don’t have “frank” conversations about race.

Mr. Blow also talks about a study called Project Implicit, a virtual laboratory maintained by the University of Washington and the University of Virginia, that seems to back up this assertion – much to the chagrin of those “prejudiced” whites who took the project’s online test.

I was one of those who took the test. I’ve never thought of myself as prejudiced – indeed, I’ve tried since I was old enough to understand what it meant not to be – and yet my score in the test did show that I have a positive bias toward whites and a negative one toward blacks. It disturbed me. Yet I have to admit that I wasn’t entirely surprised at what the test revealed about me. Nor was I surprised to learn that a resounding majority of the whites who took the test, and who think of themselves as unprejudiced, also harbor this hidden ugliness in their souls.

The theory posited by the makers of the test is that our unconscious minds are “set” when we’re very small – by the age of six – and that try as we might, changing that unconscious bias is close to impossible. But if this is really the case, that even if we consciously try not to be biased but deep-seated mental triggers make us so anyway, how are we ever to overcome it? How can we ever achieve a truly “equal” society?

The test’s creators think that if whites can be taught to distinguish individuality in black facial features – if we can learn to see each black man or black woman we encounter as an individual – then we’ll overcome this handicap. Mr. Blow feels that we can do it through dialogue – whites talking frankly to blacks, and vice versa – as well.

Certainly, having a black man (yes, I know he’s half white, but this is the general perception in our society) as President will help break down these racial barriers, especially in the youngest of our children. Perhaps when they’re grown, this innate bias won’t be so marked. Or perhaps it won’t exist anymore. But that’s 20 or 30 years out. What about now, when prejudice, conscious or otherwise, still darkens our culture and society? Even the words we use, like “darkens,” work to further the bias.

I don’t have the answer. Mr. Blow’s idea is a nice one, but when and how do we have this dialogue? Who will teach whites to look beyond skin color to the subtleties of facial features as a way to see blacks as individuals? Is this something that will be taught in Kindergarten? And what about the other, myriad biases and prejudices we all harbor? What about gender prejudices? How about the prejudices against other skin colors and cultures? Here in America, the most volatile struggle for equality has been between the white and black people and cultures. But there are many, many others, equally as serious. Look at America’s xenophobia regarding Hispanic immigrants, legal or otherwise.

And how about our geographic divides? In Philadelphia and New York City, in Boston and Savannah and New Orleans, black and white people live closely together, for the most part. But in my county, I can count the number of black people who live here on one hand. There is a visible minority of Hispanics here, but nearly everyone else is white.

I didn’t grow up here, but the town I did grow up in was just the same, except there were even fewer Hispanics. My parents were both prejudiced against blacks; indeed, against anyone who didn’t have a white skin like ours. Dad grew up in Detroit; his experience of blacks there and later, in the military, wasn’t positive. He felt his prejudice was justified. Mom grew up in northern Idaho. Until she moved to California as a young adult, she’d never had any experience with black people, but her times and culture shaped her anyway. And, as a woman who came into adulthood in the ’50s, she naturally adopted her husband’s views on the world.

And they passed that prejudice on to their children. It wasn’t overt. They were affected by the Civil Rights movement, just like everyone else in America, so they didn’t talk about their own prejudices much. But where we lived said a lot – in suburbs that were basically free of black, brown and yellow faces. The subject, naturally, rarely came up.

My experience isn’t unique. We do self-segregate. How do we overcome the natural inclination to live near and with those who look like ourselves? How do we overcome our ingrained fear of the “other” if, even when we consciously make a sustained effort to do so, our unconscious minds tenaciously hold onto that fear? Is this instinctual? Is it ancestral memory? How do we break this mold?

I can only keep making my conscious effort not to be biased and prejudiced and hope that by doing so, I help to change my culture for the better. It will naturally take a very long time. Mr. Blow’s ideas are good ones and will help move us all in the right direction, too. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “We shall overcome.”

What do you think? Can we overcome our prejudices?

Update: This is a fascinating read on this subject. Highly recommended.

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4 Responses to “Shall we overcome?”

  1. Bill Stankus Says:

    I think the Number One issue facing everyone is over-population.

    We’d better clean-up our historic hates and mistrusts because, when elbows bump, we won’t be able to move to greener pastures or resort to name calling.

    Still, a fundamental flaw of all societies is the “we’re better than THEM” value system. We’ve seen a growth industry regarding nationalism within every society as immigration intensifies.

    I’m pessimistic about our chances for fair mindedness. There’s too much ancillary evidence indicating prejudice and bigotry aren’t dissipating. Ignorance has a deep toe-hold and appears to be spreading, especailly as the public school system deteriorates.

    As we become a pluralistic society, and differences become badges and then become enclaves, will we still be a melting pot of values and ideals?

    At the moment it doesn’t seem we are overcoming.

  2. Bill: I agree that overpopulation is one of the biggest problems humankind faces, in that it aggravates existing prejudices and bigotry. Crowding, and all of its attendant problems surely can’t help. But I’m more optimistic than you are, I think. My daughter’s generation is much more tolerant and less prejudiced toward racial, sexual, gender and cultural differences that my generation (and yours). The generation coming up after hers will be even more so, given their parent’s improved tolerance of “the other.” I don’t think we’ll ever be free of prejudice and bigotry, but I do think we’re working on the problem and that, as time passes, it will improve.

  3. The News Writer Says:

    Of course we can overcome our prejudices. We’re not born with them — they’re learned traits, and they can be unlearned. But it’s a whole lot harder to unlearn something that’s been ingrained since the day you were born than it is to passively be ingrained, especially when you’re a child and the adults around you are responsible for creating the atmosphere in which you grow up.

    Personally, I think there’s a lot of child abusers out there who would never think of themselves that way.

    Like all change, though, we have to be willing.

  4. MichaelBains Says:

    Overcoming our prejudices is pretty much exactly as difficult as overcoming our addictions, and there is a similar solution.

    But with What do we replace them? The cure’s gotta be better than the disease or the attempts are usually fruitless, IME.

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