It is never too late to give up our prejudices. ~ Henry David Thoreau
I got some blowback last week for calling people who would deny gay couples the right to marry bigots.
I was called intolerant and bigoted for pointing out that if you believe it is OK to discriminate against a group of people then you are a bigot. Perhaps I should have added that it doesn’t mean that everything you do or say is bad or evil.
People – all people – are nuanced creatures that have the capacity for love, hate, and indifference. Just as you should not define a person based on their sexual preference, color or religion, you should also not define them by their prejudice. People also have the amazing ability to adapt and change. We should encourage that in every way possible, even if it means hurting some feelings.
In my experience the only way to change bigoted behavior is to challenge it as often as possible. It’s not easy and it’s not fast but it can be done. I know this because I lived through it. My father was a bigot; He was called Archie Bunker by his family and friends. If you weren’t white and Irish he really had no interest in you or what you had to say or what you had to offer.
Bigotry and hatred are learned behaviors and only exposure and experience can alter them. You can talk about equal rights and demand action now, both are right and proper, but you really cannot effect any change in a person’s ideas until and unless they see for themselves that “others” aren’t really all that “otherly”. When I went to school (in Boston during desegregation and forced busing) I was exposed to a diverse range of cultures and people. My classmates were Hispanic and African-American and plain old white kids just like me. In fact, they were all like me; the differences were only superficial.
It was a little confusing when I started to realize how my classmates were characterized in my home. What I was hearing and what I was experiencing were at odds. Somewhere around the sixth grade I realized that Dad was wrong. My sisters seemed to come to that same realization since we all had a diverse range of friends, including boyfriends.
A funny thing happened with Dad; he slowly started to change his perceptions. By the time he died he had almost come all the way around. Unfortunately for one sister, he died before he could come to terms with her relationship with her African-American boyfriend (now husband). I’d like to think he would. He came to not only accept, but also to genuinely like, his two non-white sons-in-law, one Chinese and the other Puerto Rican.
I’m convinced, had we, his daughters, not challenged his bigotry, he would not have changed. Not even a tiny bit. Dad’s transformation is proof of why I believe it’s important that we keep calling out bigots and bigoted behavior whenever we see it. People can change. They just need to be given the opportunity and the time.
Maybe the lesson here is that the grown-ups need to confront it where we find it, all while raising the next generation to be more tolerant and open-minded. Perhaps, it really is up to the children and, with each successive generation, true equality will finally be achieved.
In the meantime, challenge some assumptions.
You may just help change a mind.
Barbara Mulvey-Welsh is a mother, writer and blogger raising kids and a husband in Plymouth. Check out her blog "Did I Say that Outloud" at barbaramulveywelsh.blogspot.com. Use caution when reading around the family, there is some strong language.