I am racist.
I am misogynist.
I am homophobic.
I am classist.
I am not condemned for these facts of my character.
From my perch in the top ten percent of income, even though I arrived by an accident of birth, there is no way my worldview has not been shaped and warped by Anglo, heterosexual, male privilege. I grew up presupposing that my British heritage was superior if for no other reason than British royal and imperial history, Shakespeare, and Handel were studied in every school as world history and world culture. Everything about the church I was raised in oozed Anglo-centrism as well – its form of worship, the language, music, and customs – and though it was small in number compared to other major religious denominations, a majority of congress had emerged from its pews.
On television and in the movies, until well into my adulthood, almost every important actor and celebrity looked like me. On the nightly news the people shown committing crimes as well as foreign enemies shooting at us from Southeast Asia (never mind we were invading them) did not look like me. Criminals were either Italian or African-American and enemies were Cuban, Asian, or pale stocky Russians with bad teeth. How could all of that not influence my perspective?
Intelligent, trustworthy people spoke with good grammar, graduated from college, and knew how to eat properly – with manners honed from upper class British customs. Even though I was older when it aired, the Cosby Family on television (as with previous television icons like Perry Mason, Matt Dillon, Doris Day, and Fred McMurray) exemplified my class and culture, and part of the humor of “All in the Family” was that they did not act or sound like us.
Although I went to a public school from Kindergarten through high school, it was a magnet school with severely limited diversity. When it was time to go to college all the choices encouraged were private, except the University of Michigan, which had family tradition but an out of state tuition that might as well have been private.
When I rebelled, which was what nearly everyone in the generation of my privileged class did, the rebellion was led by white males with few exceptions – African-Americans Bobby Seal and Huey Newton were a militant class all their own while Anglo Patty Hearst, the heir of fabulous wealth turned violent revolutionary criminal, seemed a crazy reversal and not something a rational (privileged) person would do. Even the so-called sexual revolution seemed like an insurrection led by and benefiting men more than women.
Jimi Hendrix was a falling star in the midst of a constellation of popular white rock and roll music. Jazz and blues hung out on the far edge of awareness and even though we knew they were cool, that is not where the money and celebrity were to be found. Top 40 and the record industry was almost all white except for a short spate of Motown and then Michael Jackson. That’s just the way the world looked, like the Beatles and Rolling Stones who were, after all, British.
Men ran things, that’s just how it was and had always been. Sure, there were women that complained about it but wasn’t that more sour grapes than serious critique? The Women’s Movement, derided as “Women’s Lib,” only intersected with men in the mass media via bra burnings and sexually explicit books written by feminists. The serious issues were rarely discussed openly and authentically between men and women.
I didn’t know at the time, for example, that my mom could not get credit or buy a car without her husband or that she would have lost
nearly any simple, everyday social privilege she had were she a single mom. I did not know those facts of life at the time, so what was the big deal? I realized there were fairness issues, like women couldn’t be priests and very few of them were doctors or lawyers, but most teachers were women so what was the problem?
Everyone knew Gay people were weird, but everyone also knew they were around. There was always a pair of old women who had lived together forever and who we all whispered about. There were bars and parks that only those people went to, and an older single teacher or two we were supposed to stay away from. They were an oddity that only boorish people made fun of and bullied, but like a bad odor, proper upper class etiquette did not acknowledge. Even the word “homosexual” was somehow impolite to utter out loud.
Growing up in that world included and insured a racist, misogynistic, homophobic, and classist worldview for those who were privileged, and I imagine for a good many others as well. That prism does not disappear with age and wisdom. We can get corrective lenses that adjust our vision but the lens we were formed with remains in tact the rest of our lives. We cannot rip away that lens and its perspectives. We can become aware that we have them, however, and so adjust our vision.
That is the point: if we do not acknowledge the lens we were formed with we will not gain clear and corrective vision.
Most of you in the Millennial generation have grown up in a far more diverse culture than the one Baby Boomers and the Silent generation did, at least in urban areas along the coasts and in major central cities. Your lens is embedded with the prejudices and bigotries of the past twenty years baked in, and you will also have to come to grips with those as you age. But for those of us older than forty-five or so, we need to aggressively pick through the bigotries and prejudices of the worldview we were raised with – whatever our ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, or class. Even if your family had relatively enlightened values, which mine did, the film of cultural and social prejudice still formed.
There are shouts and echoes in the popular media today that “racism is rearing its ugly head again,” or that “racism is worse than ever.” Neither of those is true. What is true is that we are seeing ourselves in the mirror and hearing ourselves in the echo chamber of the news media. We see what has always been, and hear our prejudices and bigotries being titillated and provoked in order to gain votes.
The thing about our prejudices and bigotries is that we cannot address them until and unless we see and hear them. Right now, in this awful presidential season, is a powerful moment of cultural Gestalt Therapy. Lets’s use it to stand ugly face-to-ugly face with our own prejudices and bigotries.
Waking up – awareness – is the most potent antidote for what clouds our vision. There is nothing morally or spiritually damning about the prejudices and bigotries baked into the worldview we were raised with and given, but there is something quite damning about neither acknowledging nor compensating for their presence. One is a set of circumstances we were born into and raised with; the other is a matter of personal character.