So I’ve been thinking about the whole racial (and other) discrimination thing some more today, partially prompted by some of the things my brother said in response to yesterday’s post.
One of the things that always comes up in discussions about prejudice, and what makes some folk more tolerant than others of people who are in some way different, is the way children learn to discriminate. It’s generally assumed that one of the biggest factors in whether, say, a white person is going to grow up to be bigoted against black people, is the extent to which they encountered black people when they were growing up.
Similarly, actually knowing some gay people is sometimes said to be the best antidote to homophobia. It’s harder to hate an entire demographic when you’ve hung out drinking beer with people from there and they’ve seemed to be basically Just Like You.
And I imagine that this is an influential part of developing prejudices. But I wonder if there aren’t more important ways that children learn about the world, which are more influential on the prejudices they may or may not learn as they grow up.
I grew up in a small village in the English countryside, and went to some middle-class schools. There weren’t a whole load of black people around. Probably not a lot of gay people, either – and the way that terms relating to homosexuality were thrown around as casual epithets at my secondary school, there’s no way it could be considered a natural breeding ground for tolerance and open-mindedness.
But I don’t think I was ever really in danger of turning out seriously bigoted against any of these types of people who I didn’t particularly encounter while growing up.
I have a particular flash-bulb memory, the accuracy of which I can’t really speculate on, but I’ll assume it’s not too far from the mark. Way, way back in my early childhood, there was a kid about my age in the village who didn’t have a forearm on one of his arms – it just stopped at around the elbow in something it might not be entirely appropriate to call a stump. I remarked to my parents at some point (or so I recall) that this kid with his arm was “weird”. And one or both of my parents explained to me gently that this wasn’t really a fair or kind thing to say about him, that he’d just been unfortunately born this way which made things a little more difficult for him, but we all have our differences and this was just one of those things. I don’t remember much about what I made of this at the time, but I don’t think I had much trouble taking this on board. It’s not like I’d already committed to fearing and despising the guy as a freak of nature. I just thought his arm looked kinda weird.
The general state of my upbringing was such that being naturally suspicious or mistrustful or resentful or hostile towards some other group of people I newly encountered – blacks, gays, Jews, the disabled, whoever – would never really have occurred to me. That wasn’t how I learned to approach the world. It didn’t really matter that homosexuality only became something I gained any awareness of at an all-boys boarding school, about as sexually fraught and insecure an environment as you could ask for – it was always unlikely that any serious homophobia was going to stick.
And for some people, I imagine, it doesn’t matter how diverse a cross-section of the population they get to hang out with, they’re always going to be suspicious and mistrustful of most of the rest of the world, and in particular anyone who they can place in a box with a label marked “Them”, because that’s just the way they learned to see the world.
Everyone’s been linking to this video on this blog today, and you can see why. I’ll embed the video below. This kid clearly hasn’t encountered this particular concept before, but has no trouble assimilating it into his easy-going, friendly, accepting approach to the world. He’s got the right idea somehow. And now he’s going to go play ping-pong.
Edit: Aww, no embedding because the video’s been made private. It’s a shame if you missed it, but I’m going to nab the transcript from here (hope that’s not a problem for anyone):
Text onscreen: Thanksgiving.
[Calen, a little boy, is standing in a bathroom next to a sink, looking up into the camera.]
Calen: A husband’s a boy.
Adult male voice from behind camera: Right.
Calen: A wife is a girl and a husband’s a boy. Then you two are husbands! [He hold up two fingers on both hands.] Wifes are girls; husbands are boys.
Voice from behind camera: Right.
Second adult male voice, from next to camera: That’s right. So, if you’re a boy—
Calen: You’ll be a husband.
Second Voice: Right.
First Voice: Yeah, we’re both husbands.
Calen: [puts his head in his hand] You’re both husbands?
Second Voice: Is that confusing—
Calen: You married each other?! That’s funny! [slaps hand to head]
Second Voice: That’s funny, right?
Calen: Yeah. [looks thoughtful] I usually see husbands and wives, but this is the VERY FIRST TIME I saw husbands and husbands! [grins excitedly]
[The two men laugh; Second Voice peers around and grins into camera.]
Calen: So funny.  So that means you LOVE EACH OTHER!
First Voice: Yeah.
Calen: Yeah. Yeah, they’re much alike. You’re much alike. Hey, I’m going to play ping-pong now.
First Voice: Okay.
[Camera follows Calen out into the hallway; he turns back and looks at the two men.]
Calen: You can play if you want to.
Text onscreen: You’re much alike.