I have sailed through my adult life believing that I had buried the prejudices of my parents who were imbued with the bigotry common among middle class Euro-Americans born in the first half of the twentieth century. My parents looked down upon African Americans, Germans and Japanese (because of the World Wars), Mexicans, Jews, Catholics and what they called white trash. In effect, they looked down upon anyone who was not like them and attributed to everyone in those groups specific shortcomings. Germans were heathens. Japanese were sneaky. Catholics were sinners who hated Protestants and advocated against use of birth control so that they could populate the world with more Catholics. Jews were dishonest and stingy. Mexicans were lazy. Native Americans were drunks. African Americans had an abundance of serious shortcomings: sloth, uncleanness, perpetrators of violent crimes and stupidity. I heard this litany of bigotry throughout my childhood, rejected it at about age 16 and proudly considered myself unprejudiced.
The basic tenet of bigotry is attributing some characteristic (usually, though not necessarily, negative) to an entire group of people, instead of considering each individual based on his unique characteristics. That is, not all––not even a majority––of the individuals within the groups judged by my parents possessed the negative characteristics by which my parents were judging them.
I have recently realized that my conclusion that I had rejected my parent’s bigotry was an illusion. Sure, I wasn’t guilty of the same bigotry. I didn’t judge individuals in those groups judged by my parents in the same way. Nevertheless, I am guilty of bigotry.
When I moved to Georgia, although it became apparent that attitudes toward African Americans had changed drastically since the mid-twentieth century, I was reluctant to make a diligent effort to befriend any Georgians because I was believed that they were far right wing conservatives, mired in the dogma of their churches, intolerant of those with views different from theirs, hiding a closet bigotry against gays, liberals and Californians (which I was). Generally, I thought they were hard-hearted people, despite the fact that the only two Georgians I knew did not fit that description.
In the past week I have met two Georgians while walking my dog down by the St. Marys River four blocks from my home. I was reluctant at first to seek their friendship. One was a woman who recently moved here from Texas; the other is the pastor of a local Protestant church. I was certain that they would possess the characteristics that my bigoted mind assumed. Nevertheless, they reached out to me, and I didn’t want to be rude. As you might guess, I learned that neither of them possessed the assumed characteristics. As a result I became painfully aware of my bigotry.
Are you a bigot?