Prejudice Sometimes Has To Die Off With The Generations Carrying It

Jacob’s Ladder by William Blake

In an article today in the L.A. Times, GOP divide deepens on abortion, immigration, gay rights, Paul West touches on a dynamic I once observed during my hospice work.  Some areas of deep and lasting social change can’t happen until the generations carrying the old prejudices die off.

The difference between some of the social values of the GOP and a majority of the upcoming generation of new voters is just one example.  From the article: 

Polling of voters ages 18 to 29 has shown that a majority hold views that run counter to the GOP stance on same-sex marriage and abortion rights…The younger generation is the most diverse in American history and thinks of itself as very tolerant and pro-diversity…

To be fair, I think the Democrats have their own set of deep prejudices which they’re equally blind to.  (Like against religious conservatives.  And for those thinking “but that’s not prejudice, that’s just right” you might want to take a look.  The reason prejudice works at all is because it feels so true.)  But today I wanted to explore the embedded racial prejudice I saw in an elderly patient I once worked with.

As I’m sure everyone is aware, back in the early 1900’s in the deep south, racial bigotry wasn’t bigotry…it was law.  It was language.  It was culture and custom.  It was so deeply entrenched in the psyches and world view of the time that the majority of people carrying it didn’t even know.  Like I mentioned above, for them it wasn’t prejudice, it was the truth.

It went so deep in fact that the passage of almost a century ultimately couldn’t wipe it out of the psyche of an elderly woman I helped care for.

She was a person who actually prided herself on the fact that she was racially tolerant.  She was raised in the south before and during the Depression but claimed to be descended from a great man who fought to emancipate the slaves, and she clearly admired and longed to emulate him.  She told me story after glowing story about all the acts of tolerance in her own life, and yet when she temporarily descended into some profound disorientation as a result of a bad fall, a broken hip, and an unfortunate reaction to pain medication, her mind unconsciously reverted to the social mores that were dominant in her childhood.

The language that started coming out of that sweet old lady’s mouth was shocking, ugly, and unbelievably hurtful.  What made matters far worse was that, before anyone realized this was going to be a problem, she’d been placed in the home of a temporary caregiver who was African American and the verbal abuse this poor woman sustained before she finally insisted that the patient be moved somewhere else was horrifying.  The whole situation was beyond awful.  It was tragic, graphic and, frankly, a little frightening to see what’s lurking just below our society’s surface, polished veneer.

But it also provided me with a fascinating insight.  Her temporary dementia gave me a glimpse into a past that I’d only read about in the history books.  A couple of times, while watching her flailing and fighting with the demons still lurking deep in her mind, I felt like I’d stepped into a time machine and gone back with her to the 1930’s Jim Crow deep south, to stand on a dusty street for myself and listen first hand.

Beyond the ugliness it felt like a privilege, too, like I’d been allowed to witness something important and rare.  While on the one hand it was chilling and left me with a heavy sense of responsibility to live every day with more integrity and respect for everyone I come into contact with (which, let’s face it, is a lot of work) on the other hand it was reassuring to see that, with as far as we still have to go…still…we have come a long way since then.

That patient came from what I think of as an earlier, transitional generation, one that shows at least some initial signs of change–a sometimes willing/sometimes reluctant resignation to move in a new direction–but is bound to some extent by the unconscious world view they inherited in childhood.

And then I look at myself, the next generation, and how I’m bound by something else, by a prejudice against prejudice itself.  I was raised to look for, identify, and challenge the old, established prejudices, to try and change them, in myself and in the world around me.  But in the end I, too, will always be bound to some degree by the fact that I can’t help but see things in terms of their differences as a result.

And then I look at my children and their friends, at how, because of our efforts before them, they’ve turned out to be so much more truly and honestly blind to differences at all.  They’re used to seeing people of every color in the media.  They’ve grown up drawing their friends and heroes from both genders, from among the able and disabled, from those of different sexual orientations, from those who come from different nations and religions or no religion at all.  They can navigate the growing diversity in the same way they can the new technologies; intuitively and unconsciously.  For them, differences aren’t that big a deal and they’re tired of hearing us harp about it.

I admit, sometimes their blindness scares me.  I don’t know if they appreciate it enough…how far we’ve come or how fragile the changes are.  I don’t know if they’ll safeguard them adequately, push for more, and ensure that we don’t get lazy and slip back again into the older, uglier cultural norms.  But then again I come from a generation of fear.

In the end, it’s their torch to bear, not mine.  I realize that.  I have to trust them…and their children and their children…to take our collective human spirit into a future that’s beyond my ability to envision or dream.  And I have to accept that eventually I, too, am going to have to die to let them do it.

I do take faith in the fact that, looking back over history, the spiral seems to move in an upward direction over time.  As our numbers have grown and we’ve been pushed into ever closer contact with one another, it does seem like the overall trend has been up.  That’s we’re seeing less of the differences and more of the similarities, and while the older powers-that-be have been tearing everything apart in panic, the upcoming generation has been relentlessly weaving it back together only in a completely different way.

There’s a quote from Ann Frank that I love:

“It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality.  It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical.  Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

It’s utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering and death.  I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness.  I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too.  I feel the suffering of millions.  And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.  In the meantime, I must hold on to my ideals.  Perhaps the day will come when I’ll be able to realize them!”     July 15, 1944

I draw my hope from both the older generation that’s now passing and taking its old, open wounds with it, as well as our children who are pouring their new vision into the world in a flood of sweeping change.  Taken together like that they don’t seem as much like they’re in opposition; they seem more like successive steps on a ladder heading upward.

I guess I too believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

copyright Dia Osborn 2012

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One response

  1. The experience with the southern lady’s long-buried social grooves is amazing and enlightening. It is a good lesson in humility for all of us…particularly those of us who cling to -isms to define and categorize people and ideas.

    It also reminds me of an early experience in my Postal career. My first line supervisor was stern and demanding. Initially, he scared me to death which was probably good because I rose to the occasion. I was one of two women working in an office of about 50 men. Dean was vocal about his aversion to women in the Post Office. At first that angered me. But, before I left that office to move to Idaho, he presented me with an achievement award, a highly unusual thing for someone so new to the organization. I was surprised and flattered. We had some heart to heart conversations and what I learned was this:

    1. Dean was raised in an era when women were considered the “fair sex.” (How innocent this seems in light of woman’s contribution to the species!) He was raised to open doors, to escort women, to do the heavy lifting. It absolutely killed him to have to stand behind Dorothy and I as we loaded and unloaded semi-trucks with sacks of mail weighing up to 70 lbs. It was all Dean could do to keep himself from muscling us aside and taking over, although that would have been against the rules.

    2. For more than 20 years, going to work had meant getting out of the house, away from the wife (he did love his wife, but…) and into the comfortable domain of the boy’s club. They could fart, scratch, swear, belch, and tell raunchy stories. (Never mind that they did this with us there, too!) Having women “invade” the office felt like the loss of a sacred domain.

    These insights helped me negotiate a career that had traditionally belonged to men. I could understand why men disapproved of and avoided working beside women. I also recognized that in my eagerness to perform up to male standards, I actually surpassed most of my male colleagues and this was one more reason for them to resent my presence.

    Now, no one things twice about seeing women in traditionally male roles. We HAVE come a long way, despite the ever-present glass ceiling. Prejudices DO exist and are nearly impossible to completely break down…as you so aptly point out. But change does creep along on cat’s paws.

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