(my struggle within my own soul)
A few years back, perhaps in the early nineties, not sure, time goes by so fast that I sometimes have trouble placing some of my life experiences in a proper time line. In any case I was on Piedmont Road in Atlanta, and coming up to the light at Buford Hwy, and saw something that took me completely by surprise. At the light were three men, each in a long white robe, with hoods up, asking for donations. To tell you the truth, I have never see a member of the KKK up close, and being in the left hand lane I was in line for one of them to approach me for some money. I found myself getting nervous, and was not sure how I would react when he came to my car window. What I did, without thinking about it was to simply turn my face away from him, and waited until he passed by to the car behind me. The light turned, and I again joined the eternal flow of traffic that is so much a part of city life. As I continued on my journey, I began to reflect on my reaction, since I have never reacted that way before. For instance I have been at lights were Black Muslims were collecting money. Of course they did not approach any car with a white person in it, and their presence did not affect me, though their dislike of the white race did bother a little, but not that much. Also I am not sure all Black Muslims dislike or hate whites, it is just in Atlanta there is a group who look upon all whites as demons and are to be avoided, but as far as I know they don’t do any kind of overt violence to whites, like the KKK as been known to do.
As I was reflecting on my reaction at the light, I came to the conclusion that what I felt as I turned away from the man in the white robe was a mixture of shame, sorrow, and anger, not all in equal parts. I think shame was the strongest element in this emotional cocktail that I was forced to drink. Why Shame (?), I asked myself. Why was it so hard for me to look the man in the eye and just shake my head, I had no problem with looking the Black Muslims in the eye, even if they did not recognize me as being quite human, but something lower, a demon. It was like having a bone stuck in my teeth, it kept bothering me, and I could not let it go. Since it was a Friday, and during rush hour I had plenty of time to think about this.
This led me to think on my own attitude, perhaps unconscious that I had towards not only people of other races, but also those of other religions, or perhaps none at all, atheist and agnostics. Since I am big on others mirroring back to me what is in fact what is in me, I found this a little disturbing. I supposed prejudice is something that is ingrained in many of us, seeds planted that don’t come to full growth, but there none the less waiting to bear fruit if allowed. I remember one day going into a Wendy’s with a friend, we ordered lunch and sat down to eat. Right after we sat down a large crowd of black teenagers came in, just being teenagers, loud, laughing and having a good time. My friend who was about 20 years older than me became very quiet, paled a little, but continued eating. I also felt a little disquiet over having some many black teenagers in the Wendy’s with us. Of course the teenagers ignored us, meant us no harm, and we ate and left. On the way home we discussed our reactions, how primitive and fearful they were, and yes based on ingrained prejudice, something as much a part of us as our skin.
The distrust of someone different, be it from a different race, religion, tribe, political party seems to be part an parcel of what it means to be human, at least for some of us, perhaps there are some who are free of it. I know when I get angry at someone, this tendency to try to find some way to box them in comes to the surface with a vengeance, powerful, hateful, consuming if not all consuming. Over the years I have learned to expect this to happen, and to not act on these very primitive impulses that are so destructive to me and others. When I am focused and not in some kind of emotional turmoil I am ok, it is when the reptilian brain kicks in that I am in trouble.
The difference between a bigot and someone who is prejudice is perhaps a thin line, one that must be maintained. The bigot is dangerous because he or she “knows” that they are right, the one who is prejudice “knows” that these feelings of distrust and at times contempt are not true and need to be worked on and dealt with on conscious level. Such is the burden of trying to become a decent human being.
I suppose the shame I felt was seeing something of me in the man in the white robe, feeling shame for him and also for myself, and also sorrow and anger. Being of my race he mirrored back to me some of my own issues, that with God’s grace I need to deal with and try to find healing, and I guess this will continue till the day I die.
We are commanded to love one another for a reason; it is very difficult and often goes counter to our instincts to reach out and love those “others”. To love the least, to see Christ (I am speaking from my own faith path) in what is the least for me is a safe guard against this inner demon called bigotry that I know I have the seed of. Not just against other races, but against other religions, perhaps even against women if allowed to grow. The potential for good and evil is within me, which will I choose, and will I be able to keep making the best choice as the years move on. I hope that I remain open to God’s grace and love, for it is the only way that this can be over come. It would seem that religion can be a tool of both good and evil, I pray that we learn from the past and strive to never regress to the hatred that is part of the history of my faith.