Were he still alive, my father would have turned 91 last month. I’ve spent a fair bit of time lately thinking about him and his influence on me, especially from my childhood. Allow me to explain what must seem like a paradox in the title.
First, some context: As best I can tell, both sides of my father’s family have deep roots in rural southern Ohio. Not really Appalachia, but adjacent … generations of farmers, probably with not much more than a high-school education, if that. I’d be surprised if his grandparents and parents met many people outside of their own cultural groups.
When my older sister and I were in elementary school, an African American family moved into our rapidly growing town. One of the kids was my older sister’s age but not in her class; I saw the girl in school but don’t recall talking with her. I have vague memories of there being a stir in the community about it, but it must have been stronger than that, because they moved away less than a year later.
I have better memories of my father’s comments: he was quite negative about the family, even though he likely had no interactions with them. I didn’t know back then that he was prejudiced against other races; I’d not yet heard of stereotypes or prejudice.
But I didn’t understand it. As far as I could tell, this family was a family just like ours, except for having a different skin color. So that set me to thinking about people’s differences, and how others might react to them. And I invested a lot of time in it.
Ultimately, I came to the understanding that one is born into certain categories that one has no choice in: sex; race; religion, possibly; and culture and ethnic heritage. And since a person couldn’t control one’s membership in those groups, it simply didn’t seem logical or just to dislike or reject a person on those bases. Later, his negative example prompted me to expand those categories to include sexual orientation; even later, my own experiences led me to include gender identity, disability, and others.
I was 10 or 11 years old when this exploration began. I don’t think of myself as exceptionally gifted intellectually: I was perpetually curious and observant, I had a lot of time to myself, and I filled much of it with thinking about things (and I still am & do). My father’s prejudices gave me a lot to think about back then. I remember deciding that I didn’t want to reject people on the basis of any aspect of themselves that they had no control over.
When faced with evidence against his prejudices, my father usually changed them. Some seemed to be easier for him to release than others, and sometimes it seemed he’d make an exception for specific individuals, but it’s a credit to him that he was willing to re-examine them at all. My father was very much a product of his own insular culture and limited education and experiences. He never flew on a plane in his life; I’m not sure that he ever traveled out of the United States (and if so, it was to Canada).
I wouldn’t have had these epiphanies if my father hadn’t expressed his prejudices in my presence. I can’t say that if he’d never done so, I wouldn’t have thought about these issues and reached the same conclusion: but I’m certain I wouldn’t have done it at such a young age. Because of him, I became an individualist before knowing the word even existed. Having escaped southern Ohio years ago, I’ve lived in many places and traveled to more, and I know the value of a diverse, mutually respectful community.
(This doesn’t mean I’m a paragon of virtue; implicit bias is real, and sometimes my own cultural baggage is first on the scene. If I have a negative reaction to someone, I try to introspect honestly to explore its origins.)
It hurts to see so many people in this country embrace exclusion of large groups of people, apparently without giving any thought to the individuals and issues involved. In my psychology courses, I pointed out the facts that my father’s prejudice made me face so young, in the hope that they’ll have an epiphany that will help them be more tolerant. Some students told me that that made a difference in their thinking; I’m grateful for that. But it isn’t enough. I want to contribute more to the advancement of civil rights, and am actively exploring how to accomplish that.
MotD: 3 Dog Night’s version of “Black and White.” The song has an interesting history. While I used to enjoy listening to it and singing along, these days I get a little sad when I hear it; it reminds me of what’s been lost.