When I was about 10 years old in the 1970s, there was a TV commercial where a little boy said to his grandpa, “Grandpa, Joey says I’m prejudiced.”
The grandfather asks his grandson, “Are you prejudiced?”
The boy responded, “I don’t think so.”
The grandfather then said, “Oh? And who is Joey?”
“He’s my Jewish friend,” said the boy.
“Then you are prejudiced,” replied the grandfather.
“Why?” asked the boy.
“Because you think of Joey as your Jewish friend and not just as your friend.”
That commercial has stuck with me through my whole life. I think of it frequently. I toss the words around in my head. Despite its simplicity, the message can be interpreted and debated and internalized in different ways. One takeaway is that it is possible to be prejudiced (or in 2019 terms – racist) without knowing it.
Here’s another story: When I was in my late 20s, working an office job in corporate public relations, I found myself communicating via email with someone I had neither met in person nor spoken to on the phone. This was in the early 1990s. My company was an early adopter of email. My company subcontracted work to the company the other person worked for. Her name was Lisa Marks. That was pretty much all I knew about her: She had a generic name and I needed her to do the job we hired her to do.
I found her emails extremely difficult to understand. Most of the time I literally could not make sense of what she was saying and I repeatedly had to check and reconfirm that I was understanding her correctly. To give her the benefit of the doubt, rather than assume Lisa Marks was simply bad at communicating in writing, I concluded English must not be her first language. I figured her first language could have been anything: French, German, Italian, Spanish. I had no idea. I mentioned this to someone. I don’t recall who, or even if that person worked for my company or for Lisa’s.
The next thing I knew, I received a very formal letter, in the U.S. mail from an executive as Lisa’s company (probably from the H.R. or legal department. I don’t recall). The letter stated that I was a racist and I needed to explain the terrible things I had been saying about Lisa Marks. Then someone told me Lisa was black. I wrote back to the person who sent me the letter and explained myself just as I did here in this column. I never heard from that legal/H.R. person again. I eventually did meet Lisa and we worked together fine but her writing never became any easier to decipher.
And, now a third story:
This story unfolded in the news following President Trump’s tweets suggesting that the Congressional “squad” go back where they came from. The Washington Post ran several opinion pieces about it. In one piece, the writer tried to explain the “mental gymnastics” (his words) that a Trump supporter must go through when processing this whole “Send them back” situation.
The writer said a hypothetical Trump supporter must think: A) I am not a racist. B) I support President Trump. Therefore C) What president Trump says cannot be racist.
I bring all this up not to draw any conclusions or point fingers but just to maybe encourage some thinking because, unlike racism, we could always use more of that.