Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Not Exceptions

Tin Man near my house.

This idea has been percolating around in my mind for a long time. Now I'm going to write it.

Most people think of themselves as good and kind, or at least in the right. Most people are in their daily lives. Most people staunchly deny that they are prejudiced or bigoted. They would never think of using a racial or other slur in their daily conversation, or even in their thinking, and would feel shocked and uncomfortable if someone else did so, especially within earshot of the insulted. They point to the undeniable fact that they have gay co-workers, or other race neighbors, with whom they are friendly.

Someone once said that racism in the US was like the rain. You go outside you will get wet. I think the clouds are clearing some, but we still need our umbrellas. Homophobia is still institutionalized in most State constitutions.

However there is a kind of casual, everyday, common or garden, bigotry that is almost invisible. People hold on to assumptions, revealed in words like "they", or "those people", or "people like that" when  referring to a particular minority. Phrases like "The Gay Lifestyle" or "from a bad neighborhood" or "they have their own culture" homogenize people into groups. (The irony that I am doing something similar here, is not lost on me - but we only have so many pronouns, and I fear that I am not talking about a minority.)

Then the assumers (nice, well-meaning, kindly people) meet and get to know on a personal level, some individual that does not fit their stereotype. Instead of being unmotivated that youth is busy and hardworking; instead of being promiscuous, that man settled in a serious relationship; instead of being violent and scary, these teenagers are kind and responsible; instead of being ignorant and stupid, that woman is well informed and articulate; instead of wearing wild clothing, that person classy and elegant.

Here's where the shadowy bigotry lies. These folks then believe that their new friend, the individual from the "other" group, is an Exception.

And the great sad irony is, instead of re-examining their assumptions in the light of new, contrary evidence, they apparently persist in holding on to them. It seems no matter how many of these Exceptions that they meet, they still regard their own friends and colleagues as just that - Exceptions.

It's cognitive dissonance.

This is where the challenge lies. Not in the clarion calls of the visible, publicly declaiming their bigotry. These are the easy ones to fight. But seeing inside good people's hearts, illuminating their persistent beliefs that hold despite new, personal, knowledge, how do we fight those? How do we help people consider that maybe they have been wrong all along, that maybe the exceptions are not?

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