The recent story by Diane Sawyer on the TV program “20/20” concerning the problem of drugs in Eastern Kentucky brought forth a strong reaction from all of us. We all had the feeling that once again our homeland here in the mountains would suffer the wounds of prejudice.
Prejudice means that we “prejudge” or form an opinion about a person or a place or a situation without knowing the facts. People form an opinion about us simply based on how we look, where we live, where we go to school, the type of job we have, the car we drive, or where we attend church. All kinds of things go into our prejudging someone.
When we are the one being “prejudged”, something inside us screams out to the world,
”Don’t do that to me! I’m not like that! Please see me for who I am!” We all want to be seen as individuals. We want others to know the facts before they make a judgment about us.
Most people do not know that they are prejudiced; some of the most prejudiced remarks that I have ever heard were introduced by the words, “I’m not prejudiced, but….”
Prejudice is insidious. Prejudice seems, sometimes, to be in the blood and bones of people as though they were born that way, but that is not true. We learn prejudice. We teach prejudice.
Sometimes we have to experience freedom from prejudice in order to know that we were indeed prejudiced. I, many times, have been more prejudiced against those who show prejudice than those who receive it. However, prejudice is always wrong. At a time in my life when I needed a job the most, I was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and went for an interview for a job that literally would feed us (or not) while Jerry was a resident there making just about enough money to cover the rent on our army barracks apartment. I really wanted the job because it was working with children. The time was in the early 1960’s when the news from our beloved South was terrible. There had been riots in Little Rock when the school there was integrated; everyone knew about the awful happenings in Selma, Alabama. I was very conscious that my southern accent gave everybody the feeling that they knew my every thought about the race situation and that it went without discussion that I must be ignorant as well. I wanted to have conversations about these situations, but people were prejudging me, assuming that they already knew what I thought. One day when I was walking from the small grocery store near my apartment, I realized for the first time that at least I had an advantage over people of color because I could escape prejudice if I didn’t speak. I realized then that those enduring prejudice due to skin color did not enjoy that privilege; they could be judged from blocks away.
Once when I was at a large department store in Detroit, I looked at the lady operating the elevator and said, “Four”, indicating that I wanted to go to the 4th floor. The group of teen-agers, already in the elevator, laughed out loud at my Memphis accent, and this grown lady left the elevator with tears in her eyes. It took that experience to show me that things like that are done all of the time. Someone does not have to say something ugly to you to show prejudice; prejudice is the assumption that “they” already know who you are and what you think just by seeing you or hearing your voice. That is a terrible feeling.
In 1964, when I reached the Ypsilanti State Hospital to apply for the job that I needed so desperately, imagine my feelings when I was introduced to my interviewer, a six foot tall black man from the Deep South. “Oh, no,” I thought, “I’ll never get the chance to even say what I know or what I feel about this job.” On the contrary, that gracious man was one of the kindest people I met in Michigan; he became my boss and I respected and admired him very much. Most of all he accepted me and did not see me through the eyes of prejudice. He could have taken that opportunity to “get back” at the southerners who looked like me who had shown him prejudice. I am forever grateful that he did not.
Michigan was not the first place in which I experienced prejudice; after my sophomore year in college, a friend and I went to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, to be waitresses for the summer to earn college money; the restaurant was on a beautiful beach and it was expected that many European tourists would be there vacationing all summer. However, because of a summer long ferry strike, no tourists could get to the island, so we served only local Canadian patrons. I did not know before that summer that many Canadians did not like Americans, and our hearts were broken and our pockets pretty empty because we would work as hard as the Canadian waitresses, but many Canadians would not tip us because of our origins. That was hard to take, and needless to say, unfair. Prejudice is always unfair!
I have also experienced the prejudice given to those who are overweight. In 7th or 8th grade, I was called “Fat Pat” more than once. Do you have feelings that if a person weighs more than he/she should, that that person is automatically “lazy”, “lives an unhealthy lifestyle” and/or “probably gets up during the night to gobble donuts?” Those things are not always true. Many of your skinny friends do those things with as much regularity as does your overweight friend. We are all equipped with different metabolisms. Prejudice can creep into your mindsets, even when you are not conscious of it or don’t verbalize it.
And then, my children and yours have had to fight the “hillbilly prejudice” that is very prevalent outside of eastern Kentucky; again, an accent causes the knee-jerk prejudice toward the one who speaks with an eastern Kentucky drawl. “They” know automatically that “they” are much smarter than “we” and that we are all backward and sorry, related to each other and living a terrible, deprived lifestyle. We and our children can usually overcome those misjudgments, but if we are overweight, dark-skinned and are different in any other way, the battle is more difficult.
Prejudice is real; prejudice rears its ugly head at unexpected times; it is received and experienced by all people in their lifetime. And even though it is just an attitude, thoughts, realized or not, turn into actions or lack of actions that can change and ruin lives. Let’s shine the light on this terrible insidious thing called “prejudice”. When you look inside your thought processes, try to catch yourself anytime the thought appears that begins with “All”, like all poor people, all fat people, all Catholics, all Republicans, all Mexicans, all northerners, all coaches, or all preachers. Look deep into yourselves and try to give others the thing that you want, the opportunity to be seen and known for yourself. You are uniquely made and not like anyone else.
(You can reach Pat Bryson at firstname.lastname@example.org)