Saturday, December 24, 2005

Riddle Solved

Here, as a last-minute addition to the boxes under the Christmas tree, is this blog's gift: the puzzle of prejudice has been solved!

Why were there so many people, in comments here, or in e-mails private and public, seemingly unable to admit even the existence of prejudice -- racism, sexism and class elitism and its expression in the form of discrimination -- let alone that we all participate in this social problem to varying degrees? It seemed to me baffling that in 2005, three decades after Martin Luther King's campaigns, apparently educated Americans would seem unable to see what's in front of their eyes.

Like Anne's comment, many wanted to point somewhere else, even though I hadn't singled out the United States, but merely provided an American example. Of course racism, sexism and class elitism exist everywhere! I just started from our own commonplace.

The answer came on one list in which I participate: "It's hard for someone to admit he's benefited from prejudice since we all think we deserve what we have."

We're both Americans and I think he was writing about our common American experience, so I'll venture to say that this refers to the American response of denial and changing the topic. Prejudice in its American version is a uniquely Calvinist sin of pride: we think we're more powerful and richer because we're one of God's elect.

It's what's meant when people say "I am proud to be an American." (And it's what they used to say out loud about being white, Gentile, male and so forth.)

You're proud, really? Did you choose where you were born? I don't remember getting to choose between New York City and New Dehli, Forest Hills or Harlem, educated and healthy parents or poor drug-addicted dropouts.

Yet by the sheer chance of the social and economic accidents of birth I was, in my crib, a potentate next to a contemporary born the same instant in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. How can I explain this? What do I do with it? You mean I didn't earn all I have and all my accomplishments?

As Stan said, I can decide that I'm really entitled to the benefits of being born to be of the class, income level and education and even sex that I was, or I can accept that I have benefitted all along by the fact that I didn't have to compete on a level playing field with millions others who weren't. And that's just the beginning.

Yet if I admit that prejudice benefits me ... hmm. That feels uncomfortable.

It's like finding out -- when I was a Christian -- that among the words of Jesus in the gospel is the following moral challenge: "If thou wilt be perfect, go sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come follow me." (Matthew 19:21)

Gulp! Sell all I have and give it to the poor? The notion has dogged me for years.

Oh, yes, we can find a million ways to say it doesn't really mean anything and it applies to someone else. We're all geniuses at rationalizing. When I taught Sunday School, the children were always asking me for a loophole in the Sunday Mass obligation. I once pointed to a crucifix and said: "If some Sunday morning you wake up pretty much like the guy on that cross, you're excused from Mass." So I know that we adults can all tell ourselves racism exists somewhere else, so why bother, or why beat ourselves up since we're really pretty much like everyone else

But, wait! If we're pretty much regular folk like Iraqis, Kenyans and Bolivians, to name a few, how come we have all these privileges and they don't?


George said...

I don't believe that we can think of prejudice as an either/or black/white (pun unintended) proposition. Rather, it exist as a continuum. We all possess a certain degree of disfavor between "us" and "them".As long as we are able to perceive any differernce between the groups we maintain identity and "alien" individuals. there will remain a variable degree of prejudice.

There exists prejudice between groups and also within groups. It is graduated towards perceived members of "our" own group who may differ slightly, e.g. color shading
among African-Americans.

Joan said...

There is also, as I believe I posted a few days ago, significant within group prejudice as well. Hence gubernatorial attempts at "social engineering", from which, of course, the affluent can buy out. As did our revered Fuhrer, Blair, able and willing to have his children benefit from private education.
In many societies, rich and poor, there are pressures to maintain social distinctions between "Us" and "Them". Consider India. Four (I think) distinct castes. Consider England (three major groupings, plus sub-sets). Elsewhere the pattern repeats. I am reminded of the psychoanalyst, Eric Berne, and his book "I'm OK, you're OK". Subtext being that *you* (whoever) are *not* OK. *You* do horrible, distasteful things, such as support the *wrong* soccer team, support soccer rather than Rugby, drink PG tips or Typhoo tea, or instant coffee...
So totally non-U, as Nancy Mitford might well have remarked.

Ellen K. said...

Personally, I don't like the term racism, because I think it's miss-used. I think more often than not, when we talk of "racism", classism is a better term. That perceived class behind the prejudice, and usually there are many other factors besides physical features ("race") that play into the prejudice. Not saying racism doesn't exist, but that it is usually part of the larger problem of classism.