I was reading the local newspaper’s blog today and came across a comment that was particularly thoughtful. The writer said that he did not hate anyone for their skin color or sexual orientation. And around here, that’s saying something. He later said that he did have a certain kind of hatred; a hatred for bigotry.
He spent a couple of paragraphs slamming bigots in various cultures and got a lot of positive responses, including from me. But the more I think about it, I wonder if I should be so encouraging to that kind of mindset.
As that distant piccolo continues to play its cheerful tune that guides my skips, I remember the kinds of responses I had when I encountered different cultures and races as a child. My generation never had to deal with the culture shock of desegregation. I never saw “white only” or “colored” signs on movie theatres or water fountains. They were as ancient as history could be.
In fact, I thought it was perfectly normal that my father, a young judge who had just been appointed by then-governor Lamar Alexander in 1979, would strike up a profound friendship with a ridiculously tall African-American pastor named Jimmy Terry, Sr. I went to school with one of his sons, and never did understand why he and I didn’t have the same kind of friendship that our fathers did. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I liked to skip a little too much. I’ll never really know.
Even more than 20 years later, Pastor Terry is still very much of a friend of the family, and I know even today that I can walk into his very conservative church or home and be welcomed with genuine love and warmth. He recently introduced me to a friend of his with that all-too-embarrassing, and all-too-common “I knew him when” speech.
“I knew David when he was THIS high,” he said as he held his hand to around his knee.
“Pastor Terry,” I interjected, “You’re so tall I’ll ALWAYS be that high on you!” Alas, it’s the truth.
Sadly, I heard some children my age call me “nigger lover” because our family would have friends from all walks of life. We would even visit our cleaning lady in her apartment at Lincoln Homes from time to time. In reality, my father taught us—his children—that respect and friendship is color-blind. But he didn’t have to teach that with words. He taught it with his actions.
He recently told me that he was in a local chapter of a Christian organization, and there was a discussion on how to bring growth to the group. He pressed for involvement of the African-American churches. Naturally, the idea was met with hostility and an utterance of “nigger lover” by one person. Dad smiled and said he considered it a compliment.
In a classic example of divine humor, a member from another chapter moved into the area and wanted to serve locally. His German-accented wife was told over the phone that he would be welcomed. When he arrived, my father smiled ear-to-ear. The transferring member was black and quickly became an integral member.
I’ll always have an appreciation for anyone who’ll look beyond what they see in order to build relationships. Whether it’s social status, skin color, sexual orientation, they are all outward expressions or appearances of our lives. But they are not expressions of our hearts. People like my father and Pastor Terry understand that.
Sadly, many in our community do not. They’ll only look for every single reason why a certain group of people should always be second-class. It doesn’t matter if they’re marginalizing blacks, Hispanics, or the GLBT population. They’re not looking to build bridges, they’re looking to expose weaknesses.
They’re the first to point out the faults of a race or a community by the failures of a few… or even many. The darkness of their own hearts has blinded them to the reality that we are all in this thing called life together. Instead, they have to elevate themselves by trashing others.
The more I think about it, the more I realize that the people who called me “nigger-lover” in school were the same kind of people who called me “faggot” every time I passed them in the halls. The attitude is the same. “This is what separates you from me, so therefore I’m better than you.”
Do we have that same attitude when we encounter naked bigotry—or even the subtle kind of bigotry that has permeated our entire Southern culture? “Oh, you’re just one of those bigots,” we might say. I really don’t think there’s much of a difference.
Prejudice is a learned behavior. Once we learn it, it’s very difficult to purge it from our pantheon of understanding. It’s even more difficult to purge it from our hearts. My father once said that prejudice is simply a form of pre-judging. In reality, we all pre-judge by nature based on what we have assimilated into our minds.
We “enlightened people” might even pre-judge a bigot by their attitude just like someone else might pre-judge a black teenage girl because of her skin color as she enters a clothing store as a shoplifter to be watched like a hawk. We would call the latter “racial profiling.” It’s just prejudice. No fancy names are required. It can be subtle, that prejudice. And it will darken our hearts without our even realizing it.
Because of this, I have to search my own heart on a regular basis. Am I pre-judging someone because they might not like my sexual orientation, or the fact that I will work toward equality for all people?
Well, maybe I am. Now I have to decide if that’s a bad thing.