prejudice hurts all of us
My maternal grandmother was an anxious person. When I was a small boy she had a great influence on me in terms of preparing my framework for viewing and interacting with the rest of the homo sapiens on this planet. Granted, it was not all her own psychological content – South Africa was at war with itself still. This was the 1980’s in Apartheid South Africa, and she was convinced that there was a bomb in every Wimpy restaurant and every black person was a terrorist in hiding. The fact that I frequently looked under the tables whilst enjoying my burger and milkshake and found no ticking bundle of wires, and the fact that the black people who cared for our lawns and washed the dishes were just decent, hard working, mostly illiterate people who showed no hint of aggression failed to mitigate the message taken from those news reports that terrified the adults around me. My grandmother was fond of pushing the message that there was terror everywhere, and you had to be very very suspicious of other people in general. I live with the generalised form of her anxiety. But on top of that, the culture in which I grew up was fond of pushing a specific suspicion of others, especially, but not exclusively, people of different hue to yourself. It is a mindset which I have never felt comfortable with as long as I can remember – perhaps I have always been too much of a skeptic of these sorts of blanket generalisations (even though, like the rest of you, I catch myself making a fair many of them).
Later, I abandoned those precepts because beyond the times when I did not find the bomb under the table, and when I did not get murdered in my bed at night, I had such jarringly different experiences of people who were “not the same as me” and those experience made a foundational difference to me. In my mind, and in my experience things were not as the adults around me presented them as being.
I found kindness where I was told there would be only danger.
I found humanity where I was told there would be only inhumanity and impersonal disregard.
I found more similarity than difference where I was told I would find nothing but difference.
I found love and acceptance where I was told I would find only hatred.
Even these experiences though are not enough to undo completely the influence of the prejudices contained in adult minds and leaked onto the canvas of the young mind. The mind must be watched with the vigilance of a cat outside of a mouse hole (a brilliant general meditation technique incidentally).
Whilst it would be naive to assume that the world is an entirely good place where no one intends to harm you, within the general circumspection employed in sizing up whether a person intends harm or not, I firmly believe that most people are good and sociable and a smile will open their goodness to you, a smile and mutual respect for the moment where they could show it to you will let it out into the world.
We lose something when we pre judge a person within the framework of stereotypes, those mental heuristics which fail to treat each new situation on its own merits and each new person as an unique individual. Being a prejudicial person may certainly be safer (in the sense of reducing the frequency of potentially dangerous encounters), but it comes at a steep price. The price unfortunately is paid on both sides of the situation – the prejudicial person fails to be open to connecting to the potential good in most people, and simultaneously the good in people is not able to be expressed into the world as fully as it could be. The prejudicial recoils in suspicion and the pre-judged recoils with confusion and harm with such a rebuff of their nascent expression of the goodness within them. How painful it is to know that the other person has not seen “you”, but has become mired in the initial impression created by your skin colour, your gender, your job description.
The problem of prejudice is not in other people – the problem is inside of us, each and every one – for I have yet to meet a person with no prejudices.
To understand oneself requires patience, tolerant awareness; the self is a book of many volumes which you cannot read in a day, but when once you begin to read, you must read every word, every sentence, every paragraph for in them are the intimations of the whole. The beginning of it is the ending of it. If you know how to read, supreme wisdom is to be found. Jiddu Krishnamurti – The Collected Works Series Vol. III, p. 219.
The people I meet who make the effort, or have the wisdom to make the effort to catch their minds falling back onto prejudice, and own it, and try to change it in that moment; people who make the simple mental manoeuvre of reaching out to find the unique humanity inside of other people and giving themselves and the other person time to find the good, to give it space and energy to flower in the world – those people I respect a lot, and I get a glow inside of myself to know that they are here among us. Those people have the richness of the goodness in the world. To live otherwise is to live in the wasteland of disconnection, to fall foul of the the tyranny of the mind’s tendency to see each new day in the distorted light of the past.
Perhaps I am lucky and naive – I admit that I have been quite fortunate to never having been the victim of a major crime, and experience certainly prone to damage your openness to other people in general. I can certainly understand a general distrust of people as a response to such tragedy. A mistake is made however when we emerge from such experiences and use them as archetypal scenarios to build and support a simplified framework of prejudice with which we can colour our perceptions of future scenarios with people who may have the same skin colour as the aggressor. When we respect every person as an unique individual we do them, and ourselves a great service.
Right thinking, right speech, right action. Buddha