Am I racist? prejudiced? biased? intolerant? There was a time when I really didn’t think so. Maybe I even prided myself on my tolerance and kindness. But the farther I go through this life, the more I realize that I have negative attitudes I never recognized in the past.
When I was young, things seemed “easier” though I suspect I was simply naïve. We tended to “know what we know,” living in relatively homogeneous social groups, unaware of those who differed from us. The town I grew up in was almost completely Euro-centric and “racial” differences were more “national” variations: there were several Euro-hyphenated-Canadian groups who recalled their cultural backgrounds at events like weddings, special dates, and so on, through food, clothing, dance, and other customs, and we mostly thought that was pretty cool—as long as in everyday life, people “fit in” to general society. Assimilated into the English-speaking cultural majority.
There was an indigenous community “across the lake” from our comfortable little town, but it seemed like they mostly “kept to themselves” and we barely recognized they were there unless we happened to drive through their reservation on the way to visit friends who had summer cabins on the lakeshore, the delightful waterfront plots of land leased cheaply for 99 years via the Indian Agent. We rarely thought about how this forced the people whose land it really was to have to live up in the dry, barren, less desirable land away from the lakeshore. We also were unlikely to consider that rather than them keeping to themselves, we had actually pushed them away and we were quite happy to keep them away.
Not only were we a white, Euro-centric community, but in a town of about 20,000 people, there were at least 60 christian churches—”a church on every corner” as folks liked to joke—but no mosques, synagogues, temples, or other places of worship. Provincial premiers came from our conservative little town, and federal politics also found our riding a very “safe” conservative seat. When I turned 18 and was able to vote, I went to the local Conservative Party headquarters to offer my assistance with the election that year. It never occurred to me that there were alternative political viewpoints—but that didn’t last long. The place was filled with well-dressed senior ladies with blue perms. The lady in charge took one look at me in my blue jeans and t-shirt; sniffed haughtily, and intoned, “We don’t need your sort here.” I walked out … and have never voted for a Conservative-type Party in the 50 or so years since. It was a kind of awakening, the first of many that would come into my life over the years to come.
Well, we live in quite a different world now, don’t we? Even in the few communities where there remains minimal diversity, it is increasingly difficult to avoid the fact that we live in a very diverse world—but unfortunately, there are plenty of people who prefer to ignore the fact, or even fight against it. In our global village, it should be increasingly difficult to avoid the fact that “others” are very much in existence, and are no longer willing to be ignored and/or oppressed. Yet so many people who’ve been the colonizers and wealthy power-brokers are instead angry that “those people” want to be respected and treated with equality. So many are heard to say things like, “How dare they? I’m not going to apologize and pay for supposed past transgressions. We’ve brought civilization and true religion and the opportunity for wealth and freedom. Those people should be happy!” So I wonder, is the world really different? Has it improved? Or is it getting worse? What about me? Am I improving? Am I really becoming less racist, less prejudiced, less biased, less intolerant?
Changing one’s attitudes is a lot harder than we might expect. Our prejudices are far deeper inside than we recognize. Even if sometimes unintentionally, not recognizing their prejudices, being “a product of their time,” our forebears have instilled in us, from a very young age, attitudes that we have considered as “normal” and “right” and even “righteous.” And now we’re being faced with how wrong and unrighteous so many of those attitudes are. But even when we do want to change, it’s so startlingly easy for those deeply entrenched attitudes and behaviours to rise up to the surface.
Of course, it is easier to see and judge other people’s prejudices than our own—and, to tell the truth, often the prejudices we judge most harshly in others are actually our own prejudices. For example, I often feel indignant about the ways girls and women are treated in various social and/or religious groups (but then I find myself judging those who dress in what I consider “immodest” fashion), and I feel angry about how so many people are forced to live in poverty while a few people are “filthy rich” (but then I’m reminded that even though I’m not particularly “rich” in the country I live in, I’m certainly not poverty-stricken, and statistically I’m in the top 10 percent of the world, wealth-wise … and yet what do I do to make a difference?), and I get on my high-horse about countries that go to war to “bring democracy and freedom and civilized western values” to people who, it turns out, don’t want to live in the ways “western democracies” think are so wonderful and superior (and, oh dear, it turns out that I like the “advantages” of our supposedly superior lifestyle a lot more than I want to admit…).
So I’m forced to ask myself a lot of questions: What if we aren’t as right as we think we are? What if our ways are offensive and class-ridden and immoral? What if we are autocrats rather than democratic? What if we still are far more colonial than we imagine (and we really don’t want to change that because it would mean huge changes in our comfortable lifestyles and admission of our guilt)? What if I am colonial? (This one really worries me, since I’ve been married to an indigenous man for 40 years … and I see more and more how colonial my attitudes and behaviours have been … and how they have affected him, and affected our children and grandchildren, and affected his relations: and I am so ashamed …). So what can I do? What, really, do I personally need to change in my own life? What is my personal responsibility in a world whose population is rapidly heading to 8 billion-plus human inhabitants? Can I really make any difference? And if so—even in a small way: butterfly effect, perhaps—what changes can I make toward my personal prejudices that will improve the world? What improvements are really needed?(Maybe they’re not the ones, after all, that I think would be best….)
I am worried about the prejudices I surprise myself with, prejudices I didn’t even realize I had (and many more prejudices I’m sure I still don’t recognize). Prejudices that have seemed normal, good, and right. How much am I to blame? Have I failed my husband, my children, my students, my friends and relations? Have I failed my community and my world? Have I offended people all around me? What can I do?