I’d like to tell you three stories, two bad and one good. I’ll start with the bad.
The first bad story is one you’ve no doubt heard already. It concerns Trayvon Martin, a teen-age boy who was shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer on the grounds that he looked suspicious. We may never know what transpired between the two of them but what is clear is that a grown man gunned down an unarmed teen-ager who is thought to have aroused his suspicions largely because he was a black kid in a hoodie and that was enough to make this man think he must be bad.
The second bad story happened to my friend Amanda’s son recently, and she recounts it in heartbreaking detail on her blog. A classmate walked up to this sweet ten-year-old boy in the school cafeteria and called him a nigger. No reason except that this kid probably heard that word from somewhere and applied it to another child. Amanda’s boy has been so sheltered from the ugly realities of racism that he didn’t understand the gravity of what happened. Amanda did and she understands the short distance from words to weapons when dealing with people who judge first and ask questions later.
Finally here’s the good story. When I was about 18, I was working a summer job at an amusement park with a lot of other college kids. A couple of them were having a conversation near me and they kept using the word fag to describe gay people. I finally got fed up and asked them to stop saying that word because I didn’t like it. One of them tauntingly said “What do you call them? Gay?”. In a moment of self-possession that I’ve never replicated I said “No. I call them Ed. Or Ken. Or Bill. Or Judy.”
If you are imagining me sitting here with a smirk of self-righteousness on my face as I recount that tale, think again. I recall it not to elevate myself but because it is the only story I can think of in which I can say that I was 100% acting on behalf of my better angels. Just that once. And it was 20 years ago.
What I accomplished in that brief shining moment when I was still just a teenager myself, was managing to isolate the humanity of individuals in the face of another person’s urge to categorize them broadly. I knew, and was somehow able to express, that there is no group of people known as The Fags, there were only people who were gay.But in the 20 years since that moment, I have struggled every single day to remember that. Every single day I have to remind myself to look an individual in the eye and judge them on merit, not on generic classifications.
That knowledge, that idea that generalizations are never wholly accurate, is one of the hardest lessons any of us learns. It is human nature to quantify our surroundings and draw universal conclusions based on limited information. It’s a hunter gatherer survival instinct. Those berries that look that way are poisonous. That creature who looks that way is dangerous. That terrain that looks that way is impassable. That weather pattern that looks that way means trouble, turn back, stay away.
We want to apply that same quantification to people. We want to be able to generalize. But we all have to remind ourselves that there is nothing about humans that is absolute. We, as a species, defy categorization. We embody chaos. You cannot judge people based on anything but individual merit.
And if you’re like me, you have to consciously remember that every single day. You have to struggle with the instinct to prejudge based on skin color, or eye shape, or gender, or accent, or political affiliation, or job. You have to take a breath every time you meet a person and resist the urge to think you know them based on a flash of sensory input or a two-sentence background dossier.
But struggle we all must. We must. It is the failure to engage in that struggle that leads a man to pull a gun and shoot a boy because he thinks his looks mean something. It is failure to engage in that struggle that leads to raising children who will call their classmates foul epithets that they learned from you. It is failure to engage in that struggle that perpetuates racism, sexism, homophobia and all the other ills that befall society.
None of us will ever be color-blind. It won’t happen. It’s not how we’re wired. The best we can all do is to force ourselves to seek out knowledge that goes beyond color, or gender, or orientation. We need to remember, as the great Dr. King dreamed, to judge a person on the content of his character. It’s not easy to do that each and every time. But it’s what we must do, it’s what we must encourage others to do, it’s what we must teach our children to do.