Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Prejudice

“The North won the war!” he sneered.

I’m rarely at a loss for words but I stood with my mouth hanging open and couldn’t think of a come-back. The kid was good. He pulled that retort out of deep, deep left field and I didn’t see it coming.

It was 1958 and I was at a ballpark in a small town in western New York state. Posturing, fighting, threatening and intimidating are daily occurrences in a twelve year old male’s life. We had gotten in an argument about something and were squared off trying to beat one another in a war of words rather than brawling. At that age it was customary to challenge the virtue of mothers and belittle anything about an opponent but resorting to stating a fact about a war that ended eighty-three years earlier was astounding.

This incident was one of my experiences of prejudice. Due to economic necessity, my family had moved from the coal mining area on the Virginia and West Virginia border to New York. I was an outsider and the myth surrounding anyone from south of the Mason-Dixon line is that they were illiterate, bare-footed bigots who hated people of color. I experienced prejudice from teachers and other adults as well as from kids my age.

In 1968 while in the Army I attempted to rent an apartment in a new complex located in the United States of America – the home of freedom and opportunity. After a tour, the woman who was taking the application questioned my employment. When I answered “US Army” she stopped, removed her glasses and said “I can turn in the application but it will be denied”. I thanked her for her honesty and left.

Some days I feel like I live in no-man’s land. I’m educated and have experienced the suspicion and contempt of uneducated people. I’m male and am immediately guilty of having one and only one thing on my mind. I live off the grid in a single-wide manufactured house – a trailer if you prefer – and have been asked “Aren’t you afraid of being called trailer trash?”. These and many other experiences affect my attitudes today.

Over the years my best friends have been Native American, black, Italian, Mexican, Roman Catholic, female and other “categories”. They’ve enriched my life and affect my attitudes in positive ways.

Yesterday I read that in 2005 a total of 267 people died in the deserts of Arizona after crossing the border illegally. I’m not talking about immigration policy. I’m talking about people who were willing to risk their lives for an opportunity at a better life. I remember crossing the Mason-Dixon line and, for a period of time, hating living in New York and wanting to return to the family, friends and familiarity that I had known. I wonder how many Mexicans feel the same emotions? In many ways, I feel I have more in common with an illegal immigrant than I do with the CEO of a US corporation.

But, let’s be honest. I struggle with prejudice myself. I used to pastor and I have a small understanding of religious people. As I read and watch the news I have feelings toward the religious-right that aren’t purely rational and aren’t respectful. I’m as critical of American Christianity as I am of Islam. There’s no difference between the two religions.

I would like a Muslim friend – one with whom I can talk honestly and get an understanding of his or her world. I want to get an inside view of their values, opinions and see their humanity.

Why a Muslim friend? I’m not prejudiced against Muslims but they are the target of much prejudice. I’d like first-hand knowledge to counter blind prejudice and be able to say “I have a Muslim friend. He’s a fine person and doesn’t merit your prejudice”.

4 Comments:

Blogger Buffalo said...

You hit the nail square on the head and drove it true, Paul.

I have known and/or corresponded with people of all races, ethnic groups, cultures, genders, and religions. There isn't a nickles difference between us. We all have the same needs and desires. The extremists of all persuasions work hard to get us going side ways with each other.

Back in the old days I used to run with an Arab guy. He was over here getting an education and recruiting Nam vets for El Fatah. He rode a 650 Norton. Good guy. Religion never came up. The few differences I'm sure we had never surfaced, let alone caused a problem.

Go figure.

10/17/2006 12:52:00 PM  
Blogger anonymous julie said...

It seems like most prejudices and stereotypes are overcome by direct honest communication with individuals. Of course, for those unwilling to make the attempt...

10/17/2006 09:44:00 PM  
Blogger The Michael said...

Sometimes stereotypes have very well earned foundations. Being made fun of for my accent when I ended up North was something I took with a grain of salt, considering how much of the assumptions about the people I grew up with were absolutely true. It took my own actions and attitudes to prove to people that I wasn't the stereotypical person my accent branded me as. As far as muslims are concerned, of course, those raised in an enlightened and tolerant family and place are no different than you or I, but muslims in Iraq are reinforcing every negative stereotype about themselves you could think of with a vengeance. Even black people will cross the street when being approached by a gang of their own race. Sometimes, it's simply common sense to play the odds according to proven judgements, but until people of all races quit reinforcing their own stereotypes, it's going to be very difficult to approach everyone with a benefit of the doubt rather than caution. Native Americans learned that lesson the hard way.

10/18/2006 09:24:00 AM  
Blogger ynot said...

I once had a Arab friend. He was an engineering student and I just started a construction job that paid little. We shared many pot luck suppers or we would have gone hungry. Sometimes it was just rice. I couldn't have asked for a better friend even though our beliefs were oceans apart.

12/03/2006 02:34:00 PM  

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