Admitting it is the first step

Beth Rankin

A couple of weeks ago, while checking out photo gear to journalism students in Franklin Hall, a young black student came in and asked to borrow a camera. Our exchange went a little something like this: “I need to borrow a camera for a couple hours.”

“And you’re from Uhuru I take it?” I froze, realizing I had just assumed – because she was black – that she worked for the campus minority (read: black) magazine.

My face grew hot in the half-second before she told me that she was, in fact, working for Uhuru.

Sometimes we experience thoughts, emotions or actions that straddle the thin line between presumption and prejudice. Moments like this are not uncommon, even for a liberal white girl who used to – as a 110-pound, blonde high school freshman in a cheerleading uniform – attack men twice her size for using the n-word in a Wal-Mart checkout line.

A lot has changed since segregation was ruled unconstitutional, since women won the right to vote, since the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The brunt of the problem facing minorities in the 21st century is economic backlash caused by a culture of segregation. Minority groups who were forced to live in ghettos 50 years ago are still struggling to get out and get the education they need to have the same advantages many whites have had since birth. The struggles of poor black, Hispanic and Asian families are not lost upon us, but with all our minority scholarships and education programs, it is easy to forget that white families feel the same hardships. Single, poor white mothers hear the same shaming whispers when their children arrive to school wearing the same dirty sweatpants they’ve worn every day for a week, and they struggle just as hard to keep their children in school and away from the drugs and gangs that run their neighborhoods.

No longer is it socially acceptable to throw old black women off busses or beat our wives for overcooking the roast. That doesn’t mean that isolated incidents like this do not occur; rather that the collective unconscious of our society has been forced to ascribe to a quieter, more subversive prejudice.

We do not gas Jews by the thousands; rather we parody them with stereotypes of stinginess and greed. We confuse duty with discrimination when we report dark-skinned men for taking tourist pictures of lakes, bridges, skyscrapers. We pull our boyfriends close when a black man walks past us on a dark city street. Even I thought twice before hiring two female students to work in my department in Franklin Hall.

We are not far removed from the extreme prejudice our parents knew.

There exists within us a collective unconscious that has been shaped by the society that we and our families live in. And while our society is moving in the right direction, toward a place where a baby will be born with no subconscious memory of blind hatred, our quiet prejudice threatens that end goal.

During the next couple weeks I will, in a series of columns and interviews and personal anecdotes, explore the changing face of prejudice in our modern society. Every Monday and Thursday, I encourage you to read, reflect and respond. I want to create a dialog about the prejudice we have all faced, be it a product of race, gender, sexuality, economic status, age, handicap or appearance. We need to stop treating our own prejudice as a skeleton in the closet instead of an opportunity to learn about the mistakes of our past and the possibilities of our future.

I will start the dialogue, but I hope that you will continue it, whether though letters to the editor, comments on my column’s Web page or discussions among you and your peers. Hell, you can even stop me on the sidewalk to give me your two cents.

It is time to reassess the role of hate in our culture, and there is no topic too taboo to bring into the public forum.

We can never truly grow until we are honest with ourselves and those we have injured – knowingly or unknowingly – with our fear.

RESPOND to this column in “The Changing Face of Prejudice” message board.

Beth Rankin is a senior photojournalism major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact her at[email protected].