The Content of Our Character
I’m apprehensive about this column because it’s a minefield of political correctness. I’m going to talk about discrimination and racism, and I’ll start by telling you how my own awareness of racial differences took shape long ago.
When I joined the Army at age eighteen, they shipped me off to Fort Dix, New Jersey for basic training. I and 45 or so other new recruits were jammed into an old World War II barracks, given a bunk, a footlocker, a bunch of olive drab clothes, three meals a day, and a bewildering new life. I guess about a third of our number were black.
In those days, they were called Negroes. “Black” and “Afro-American” had not yet become the preferred nomenclature.
My mother and father, both good, hard-working people, normal in most ways for that time, were racists by today’s standards. They were prejudiced against blacks and routinely talked about them using the N-bomb. They didn’t know any better because it never occurred to them to question the way they were conditioned by their own moms and dads.
But, to their credit, whenever I saw them interacting with blacks, my Mom and Dad treated them with the same courtesy and dignity that they did anyone else. So, while their abstract beliefs were racist, their behavior with real, individual black people was respectful. And it wasn’t phony respect.
They dealt with people, including blacks, as the individuals they were, and liked them or disliked them according to the “content of their character,” not the preconceptions they inherited. I don’t think they were ever aware of the contradiction between their thinking and their behavior.
Kind of weird, but that’s the way they were.
For me, actions spoke louder than words. It was the respectful behavior of my parents that took root in my unconscious mind and that ruled my own behavior as I grew up. I didn’t, and still don’t, think about race much, except when it crops up in the news. I notice it, just as I notice that some of the people I know are redheads, or are chubby or skinny, or big or little, but I don’t pay much attention to it.
So, back to the barracks at Fort Dix, where I was living cheek by jowl with a couple dozen “Negroes.” I can honestly report that it was no big thing. It only became a “thing” for people like me in later years, when the white side of America learned from Martin Luther King, Jr. about racism and how it affected people on the other end of the skin color spectrum. But in those days, at Fort Dix, I found that I liked some of these differently colored guys, and disliked some of them, about the same as I did with the other guys in the barracks.
Now for that intimidating word, “discrimination.” I discriminated among the young men in the barracks, but I discriminated on the basis of things relevant to a young man of eighteen, not skin color. Things like athletic ability (some of us played basketball at the base gym in our free time). Things like personality (I gravitated toward the guys with a smart-aleck sense of humor). And things like personal interests that matched mine, like movies, chess, science fiction, and cheeseburgers.
Discrimination itself isn’t bad or good. It’s really nothing more than the ability to distinguish differences between people and things, and to make choices about them. Discrimination gives us the ability to choose right from wrong, good from bad, and like from dislike.
Inappropriate discrimination is the problem. When you hire (or fire) someone on the basis of characteristics that have nothing to do with the job, that’s inappropriate discrimination, and it’s not only illegal, it’s impractical.
It might even be evil. When you believe people of a certain type are unlikeable, or lazy, or dishonest, you’re being unfair to them and also to yourself. You’re thinking badly of them before you even meet them. You’re blinding yourself to their true nature, and you’re denying yourself all of their positive potential.
I’m angered by racists. At this time in our history, we should all—100% of us—have learned that skin color tells us nothing about character, about ability, about morals, or about work habits, honesty, politics, or anything other than the pigmentation of our skin cells.
Yet, despite the facts, despite the obvious truth, millions of people still cling to their racism, often wearing it like a badge of honor, proud to the point of arrogance of their backward thinking and beliefs. They’re harmful, and are unrepentant about the harm they’ve done and would do again.
There’s a perverse effect that racism sometimes creates in its victims, and here’s where I might get in trouble with some of you. Let me approach it with an analogy: I’m bald…started losing my hair in my twenties. What if my parents had conditioned me to believe that people discriminated unfairly against baldies. What if I grew up with the idea that whenever I failed at something, it was because “baldists” prevented me from succeeding? What if my baldy conditioning made me believe that the world and all of its people wanted to hold baldies back, to give people with hair the best jobs, and to disrespect hairless scalps?
A worldview like that might poison my thinking. I might always factor in my baldness, even when it’s not part of the equation at all. It might make me blame all my troubles on my baldness.
Here’s the problem with that: Whenever I fail at something, instead of looking at myself objectively to discover how I might have contributed to the failure—what skills I might lack, what behavior on my part might have diminished my effectiveness, what attitudes or beliefs might have caused me to sabotage myself — I would simply blame it on baldism, carry on without improving myself, and choke on my resentment and the unfairness of it all.
Here’s my last thought about discrimination: Racism is actually a lack of discrimination. It’s an inability or unwillingness to see what’s true about individual people. Racism is the application of indiscriminate beliefs and preconceptions to people who may not fit those preconceptions.
If you care enough to discriminate, and if you do it honestly and objectively, true discrimination will help you overcome preconceptions and allow you to discover the “content of their character.” If you do that you can’t possibly be a racist.
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