We made historic strides last week. The supreme court legalized marriage equality. The public called for the removal of the confederate flag from government buildings in South Carolina, finally ready to put a long-held symbol of racism to rest (one brave activist, who didn’t think we should have to wait until it was voted upon, climbed the flag pole outside of South Carolina’s capitol and took it down herself).
Amidst the celebrating, I heard a few voices reminding us that there is still more work to do. As much as I wanted to focus on the revelry and to enjoy the collective back patting, I found myself thinking about the role that we all play in the inequalities of this country. The role that I play.
It is a difficult and shameful thing to admit to having prejudices. We don’t take kindly to it. Even Donald Trump, who was quoted last week as saying that undocumented Mexican immigrants are, “bringing drugs … they’re bringing crime … they’re rapists,” made a point to follow up his comment by declaring, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”
The truth, however uncomfortable, is that it is impossible to live in America and not have implicit biases. Racism, misogyny, transphobia, and xenophobia are part of the cultural amniotic stew. And one of the forces that keeps them alive is our unwillingness to admit that no matter how thoughtful or well intentioned we are, no matter how much we donate to charity, we all carry them around with us.
But this is precisely what needs to be done. So I will go first.
I was raised by a woman whose favorite article of clothing was a tank top boasting the slogan A WOMAN WITHOUT A MAN IS LIKE A FISH WITHOUT A BICYCLE. My mother and father are staunch feminists. I am one too.
Last week, when I called Apple tech support to help me with a complicated and persistent computer problem, a female voice came on the line. “Tech support, how can I help you?” The first thought I had was, “She’s not going to know how to fix it.”
A couple months ago, I was walking to my car late at night in a dodgy part of town. A young African American man was walking in my direction on the opposite side of the street. As we got closer, he crossed the street and started walking toward me. My first thought was, “Uh oh. This is not good.”
In both these situations, I was surprised and saddened by my thoughts. But I am not my thoughts. I have agency over my thoughts, as we all do. Some of our thoughts come from a deep personal conviction, others fly into our brains from the movies, televisions shows, and news broadcasts floating around in the amniotic stew. The trick is to determine which are which. If a thought aligns with your beliefs, keep it. If a thought is in direct opposition to your beliefs, as were the first thoughts that came to me in those two situations, pay attention to it.
I recently heard someone say that it is only by becoming aware of a thought that it can be highlighted for deletion. This is our collective task. To turn our awareness inward (Oh, how much easier it is to point the finger at everyone else). We all have racist, misogynist, transphobic, and xenophobic thoughts, no matter our color or where we fall on the gender spectrum.
These thoughts, when unexamined, lead to unexamined actions, which propagate the violence, exclusion, and oppression that cause us shame. The only way to rid society of these actions is by noticing the thoughts that cause them. Thoughts cannot hurt people. Thoughts cannot ruin a culture. It is only when those thoughts are expressed that they become dangerous.
If we can be brave enough to admit our prejudices, even if only in secret to ourselves, we can begin to highlight them for deletion. When we have a thought, we can ask ourselves if it follows a deeply held belief. If it does, it should be acted upon. If it does not, if it was picked it up from the stew, we needn’t do anything but let it pass. We then have an opportunity to act in a way that is more in line with our beliefs. It seems a tiny thing, but two seconds of consideration can be as powerful as a lifetime of revolution.
Back to Writing Index