I heard someone say once we’re all just one uncle away from “The Jerry Springer Show.”
I have such an uncle. In his younger days, he’d gladly have appeared on Springer to argue against interracial dating. I know this because when I was 19, he asked me what color my new girlfriend was.
Quickly, I challenged him, “Does it matter?”
It wasn’t too hard to challenge prejudice so glaringly obvious, but what about when bigotry isn’t so obvious? What do you say when someone you truly respect says something that doesn’t sound quite right?
That was the issue recently as I heard a nurse say something I thought was prejudicial. This nurse is a mentor, and although it wouldn’t be easy to confront her, I thought I might rely on a book I’d recently read called “Crucial Conversations.”
So, I came repeating what I had understood her to say. I told her she sounded as though she was stereotyping an entire ethnic group, and I asked her to help me understand. Her reaction brought a calm explanation. She helped me see her original intent was to create better patient care for this ethnic group. The conversation was textbook perfect.
But books aside, my learning was just beginning.
During the next month, I felt myself second-guessing everything I did with the yardstick I’d originally used to measure her. I kept recalling the Scripture in Matthew, which asks, “Why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?”
For instance, when I called a tree service, I wondered why I was shying away from this man who spoke with a Hispanic accent. Later, I chastised myself for locking the car door as a group of young black males neared my car. Still later, at church, I heard myself asking a Filipino member something that assumed she was Vietnamese.
The whole thing was reminding me of the movie “Crash.” The movie asks the viewer to never assume he has completely solved his own issues with prejudice.
In the movie, a white police officer bravely stands up against a prejudiced partner. The viewer finds himself smugly squared with this officer — that is until he does something to demonstrate prejudice is never completely conquered.
When our “hero” is confronted with a split-second decision, he finds his hidden prejudices cause a fatal mistake.
No matter how open-minded we see ourselves, we all have something in common with this fictional character. It’s easy to see ourselves as someone free of prejudices, but until we turn the mirror on ourselves and open up the conversation, we remain ensnared by our hidden prejudices.
For instance, I thought myself a hero by initiating a crucial conversation with my uncle and then later with this nurse. Yet I quickly learned the crucial part of conversing is not always initiating the conversation, but maintaining the conversation.
Martin Luther King Jr. initiated conversations about prejudice, but unless we continue to deepen that conversation with ourselves and others, we’ll never know what it is to overcome prejudice.
Billy Graham expressed it best when he was asked to name which world problem he would like completely eliminated. His answer was “prejudice,” because he felt eliminating prejudice eventually would solve problems such as hunger, poverty, disease.
During the years, I’ve lost touch with my uncle, so I don’t know just how he feels about his racially mixed grandson. I guess he’ll have to deal with that in heaven, where he’ll likely repeat the words I told him all those years ago, “Does it matter?”