Everyone's a little bit racist and sexist and classist and... you get the idea
April 12, 2010 12:56 PM   Subscribe

Help me fight my own prejudices.

Similar feelings to these posts, but I'm looking for more concrete advice than either thread has really offered.

I want to maintain an open mind but I am mostly a product of my society, so that's easier on some axes than others.

For example, I've been aware of gay and lesbian rights activists since I was young and I've known a wide variety of LGB individuals, so acceptance (sorry, I thought "tolerance" sounded really awkward but I don't know a better term) came more intuitively for me. On the other hand, I know next to nothing about deeply religious, rural Americans. Logically I know that we are probably more similar than dissimilar, and that all people deserve respect, etc... but how do I teach that to the gut-reaction part of my brain?
posted by tantivy to Human Relations (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Spend some time with them, one on one, like an ethnographic study of sorts. Start attending a church (and more importantly, the mid-week events where you can get to know people). Spend some time shopping at the local flea market and chatting it up with the vendors. Maybe even join a topical message board online and discipline yourself to participate in positive, non-combative ways and never, ever start or facilitate a flame war.

The best way to understand someone is to get to know him. Not as an enemy or even as an "other," but as a human being you can shoot the breeze with and go bowling with and who knows what else.
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 1:04 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

what The Winsome Parker Lewis said. You don't even have to start (regularly) attending a church; many of them have after-service lunches where you as a newbie get free lunch and other people eat and hang out. Sure you won't get all the dirt if you aren't a regular, but you'll be there for the normal conversations you want to hear, and can ask all the questions you want to because they want you to ask questions and keep coming back (and convert, but you don't have to go to that stage).
posted by whatzit at 1:09 PM on April 12, 2010

I'd second getting to know a wide variety of people (particularly those you feel prejudices towards) on a personal level.

If you live in a place where you can't access certain groups (like "deeply religious, rural Americans" in Manhattan or whatever), then reading sympathetic biographies of such people, or personal writings by them (diaries, collected letters, etc.) is a good substitute in a pinch.
posted by yersinia at 1:11 PM on April 12, 2010

Get to know some deeply religious people. It's really, really hard to have a nuanced view of anything unless you have personal experience with it. Of course, you can try to respect people without understanding them, but it will have to be something you artificially impose on yourself; if you know a lot about them, the respect will come naturally.

The reason this works is just that nothing is as wholly positive or negative as it seems from a position of ignorance. When you experience enough of anything, you're bound to experience enough of both good and bad aspects that a knee-jerk dismissive attitude (or even knee-jerk enthusiasm) will no longer seem right.
posted by k. at 1:19 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I get that churches are well prepared to welcome newbies in hopes that some will convert. Thanks for pointing that out :)

How about other communities? Let's say I don't know any trans people (well, AFAIK, since I don't know how easy it is to "pass") but reading about the term "cisgender" on Metafilter makes me realize that I harbor some ugly thoughts on the topic.

I'm just wary of demanding that anyone who's a minority act as some kind of spokesperson. No one asks me when I realized I was straight, or whether I'm sure it's not a phase, and I like that privilege. I want to extend it to as many people as possible.
posted by tantivy at 1:26 PM on April 12, 2010

reading about the term "cisgender" on Metafilter makes me realize that I harbor some ugly thoughts on the topic.

Do you know anyone who is transgendered? My first thought on this is just to read, talk about what you have read with transfolk or allies and then read some more.

Sometimes, it is a matter of empathy, you have listened to the stories of gay men and know, and therefore empathize with their struggle. Talk with other people. Could you imagine having to live in skin that repulsed you or that you found abnormal in some way? Could you imagine being followed in every store you ever went into? Could you imagine being asked if you are the baby's nanny every time you took your mixed race daughter to the park?
posted by Sophie1 at 1:36 PM on April 12, 2010

I go by one simple motto, found in the Book of Common Prayer: "Respect the dignity of every human being."

If I have nothing in common with someone--if they have a different racial, educational, or social background and I just can't relate to them in any way, and I might even have some preconceived ideas about them--I still interact with them as I would anyone else. I shake their hand, say "excuse me" when passing by, engage friendly banter while doing business transactions, etc. When pre-assumptions do come up (i.e. they're of a certain skin color in a certain neighborhood so they must be drug dealers/rich snobs/religious freaks), I drown them out by repeating to myself, "respect the dignity of every human being." We don't have to always understand what we see, but we should respect it.
posted by Melismata at 1:42 PM on April 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm just wary of demanding that anyone who's a minority act as some kind of spokesperson. No one asks me when I realized I was straight, or whether I'm sure it's not a phase, and I like that privilege. I want to extend it to as many people as possible.

I think an important part of getting over prejudices involves discarding the notion that other people's experiences and lives are defined mostly by their differences from you.

So why do you have to ask the "minorities" you encounter to act as spokespeople at all? Try to be interested in them as people who happen to be straight/gay/transgendered/religious-- not just in the details of the Straight-ness/Gay-ness/Transgenderedness/Religiousness themselves.
posted by yersinia at 2:02 PM on April 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I think Stendhal's "Three Rules of Religious Understanding" may apply pretty well in your case, even though you're not really comparing religions:

(1) When you are trying to understand another religion [group, etc.], you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.

(2) Don’t compare your best to their worst.

(3) Leave room for “holy envy.” (By this Stendahl meant that you should be willing to recognize elements in the other religious tradition or faith that you admire and wish could, in some way, be reflected in your own religious tradition or faith.)

I also once heard someone say that, when it comes to religion, there are only two points of view: Insider or Outsider. That seems like it could be helpful in your approach -- it may take a lot of patience and even suspension-of-urge-to-strike-people to get where you want to go.

Hope that helps...
posted by circular at 2:28 PM on April 12, 2010 [5 favorites]

Read blogs by (or about) ideas that you disagree with or have a prejudice against. One of the blogs I follow frequently covers gender issues, and there are a few testimonials. I have found that reading up on topics is a great way to gain sensitivity to an issue without objectifying one person and making them "spokesperson".

(Good for you, by the way. Admitting prejudices to oneself is hard, and taking action is a great thing)
posted by OLechat at 2:31 PM on April 12, 2010

Sometimes I encounter a person with a viewpoint that's completely contrary to my own and which I'll never quite be able to grasp just because I lack the required shared experience; I try to remember then that my lack of understanding is not the same thing as their being wrong, and that while my own experiences and perspectives may be more important to me personally, that doesn't automatically make them more valid than another person's.
posted by bettafish at 2:36 PM on April 12, 2010

On the other hand, I know next to nothing about deeply religious, rural Americans. Logically I know that we are probably more similar than dissimilar, and that all people deserve respect, etc... but how do I teach that to the gut-reaction part of my brain?

Obviously getting to know people as individuals is ideal, but if you don't have the opportunity to do that, one word: travel. I guessed you were going to be in a large US city before I looked at your profile, because you remind me of me before I ever left NYC. It doesn't have to be some epic trip, just get in a car and drive around the South or Midwest for a week, or two if you can. Not too much on highways, though a little highway is ok. Simply seeing the places other people live, simply interacting with people from vastly different backgrounds - even on the most superficial of levels - can be huge for chipping away at your assumptions. And perhaps even more huge for explaining why people think so differently. It's not going to give you some deep and complex understanding of everyone's views, but our surrounding environment is such a big part of why we are the way we are, and so often we have opinions about others without even bothering to drive through their world. Especially Americans re: other Americans. Apologies if that doesn't apply to you, it's just my soapbox. I'll get off of it now;-)
posted by DestinationUnknown at 3:06 PM on April 12, 2010

As well as trying to see the individuals point of view, why not try to attach the antipathy to individuals too? Someone who is a member of a certain group might be making you annoyed/repulsed/whatever, but that might be perfectly valid. An encounter with someone with a different viewpoint from yours might leave you thinking 'what a dick', which is potentially fine as long as it stops before 'just like the rest of them'.
posted by robself at 3:13 PM on April 12, 2010

Best answer: It's impossible to do this for every stereotype you might have, this meeting individuals thing. Yes, try to do it, but you can also read biographies or blogs written by people who embody the differences you're talking about, if you can.

In regards to rural religious people, think of what you're actually saying and how even that is a misrepresentation.

Amish people? Quakers? Baptists? Snake handlers? Evangelicals? Mormons? Mennonites? Which ones do you mean, really?

I'm purposely picking out a few radically diverse rural religious types, but I think they as groups and even as individuals they'd be offended to be lumped together as "rural religious types."
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 4:26 PM on April 12, 2010

Why so serious? I'd start with some bluegrass, old-time fiddle, even zydeco. Learn about outsider art of the American South. Read some Faulkner or maybe just Roy Blount, Jr.

"Deeply religious, rural people" are every bit as complex, difficult and intelligent as any given resident of Park Slope, and a good way to start connecting with that is to enjoy art and music from a rural milieu, I think.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:03 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There are a bunch of books on religious figures and philosophy that you can read, so that you have some common understanding of religious issues with the people who you talk to. For instance, CS Lewis is really popular with some Protestants, and GK Chesterton is really popular with a lot of Catholics (though I challenge anyone to read his books and not like him at least a little). As a disclaimer, I'm very partial to these two writers. Suggestions:

Surprised by Joy
by C.S. Lewis
Till we have faces C.S. Lewis
Heretics, Orthodoxy, etc. by G.K. Chesterton

And a more recent one that's a break from my partisanship: The Unlikely Disciple. Can't recommend this book enough for someone who wants a story that treats fundamentalism in a respectful, humane way from an outsider's perspective. Also Assorted Christian blogs, etc.

If you want to develop an appreciation for Christianity in general, these may be a good start. As for deeply religious rural Americans, I'm not sure what you're looking for. Bible belt rural Christians are really different from my dedicated Wiccan friend from rural New England. People who are into religion enough to blog about it are different from those who aren't. You can take the idea of meeting and appreciating this demographic as far as you want to--go to an adult education class at a local church (never ran into one who excluded the non-religious), volunteer with them, see what the community is like, talk to the pastor/ priest. Especially the latter, because I've never met one who didn't relish the opportunity to discuss religion with a person who is honestly interested and willing to engage with the subject; I'd just be sure to say ahead of time that you're looking to expand your appreciation for religiosity, not to convert. Like any group of people, some are good, some are bad, most are somewhere in between.

Of course, it's unlikely that a single religious community is going to give you an idea of what "deeply religious, rural Americans" are like. I don't even think rural religious Americans themselves agree on what they're like.
posted by _cave at 5:44 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Don't prepare yourself to observation like an anthropologist would prepare to fieldwork. I find that patronizing. Be aware of your preconceptions1, and when you see an occasion to challenge them, seize it. You may be in for a pleasant surprise2,3.

1. I personally think you have the right to have a few, as long as you're not sitting on them for so long that you start actually believing them.

2. Or, you know, not. Sometimes, by chance, you may also discover that some preconceptions were just right in the first place.

3. This awesome comment is a good primer on difference.

posted by _dario at 7:51 PM on April 12, 2010

note: when circular mentions Stendahl, we're not talking about Marie-Henri Beyle.
posted by ovvl at 8:03 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I read a term like 'cisgender', I get unkind feelings, too. And it has nothing to do with feelings towards transgender people, rather to do with trendy people using new, obscure language, which they often claim (maybe rightly, maybe not) is for 'clarity' or something, but is largely only to prove how "with it" they are.

I've had transgendered friends since my late teens. It's a part of the fabric of being an out gay person from the very early days of outness. It's no big deal at all. But the language games can annoy the shit out of me. You may at times wish to ask yourself whether your feelings are over issues of language.
posted by Goofyy at 12:38 AM on April 13, 2010

note: when circular mentions Stendahl, we're not talking about Marie-Henri Beyle.

Thanks, I had a little attack of vertigo there.
posted by Wolof at 6:44 AM on April 13, 2010

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