I wrote this piece in response to the prompt: Have you ever experienced prejudice?
When I was at the University of Utah, I was in a special program called Free Curriculum for my junior and senior years. This program had only 26 students and was offered through the psychology department. The program was experimental and was based on the idea that by allowing students the opportunity to create their own personalized curriculums, they would not only learn the subject matter, but also the process of how to learn. Every quarter the student submitted a proposal for each class he/she wished to take in any department at the university. Outside internships were also encouraged along with independent study. This was a perfect method of learning for me and I had an excellent overall experience. However, it was also within this program that I encountered a young man who has proven to be unsurpassed in my life regarding his blatant prejudice. His subject? Me. Why? Well, read on and I’ll explain.
One early-20s fellow student (a white male from the Midwest) happened to be in one of the very small psychology classes that I was in as well. He was there on the day that I made a presentation on Freud’s paper, “Instincts and Their Vicissitudes” for our class. I noticed all during my presentation that he stared off into space, yawned dramatically and looked as bored as he could possibly be. I had worked hard on the reading and the presentation and while I understood this might not be the most scintillating topic, it was – from my point of view at least – quite fascinating. So, after class and after everyone else had left (he had lingered for some mysterious reason), I asked him, “I noticed that you didn’t seem very engaged in my presentation. Was there a problem?”
This fellow shrugged and said, “I have two biases, Southerners and women, and you happen to fall into both categories. I think Southerners all sound dumb when they talk and women…well…I’ve never met a woman who I thought was smarter than the average man.”
I just stared at him in shock. Oh. My. God.
After regaining my composure, I smiled and said, “Well, now that I know that’s your problem, not mine, I can go on my way.” I packed up my books and headed out the door.
Never, not once, not even close have I ever encountered another living soul who was so comfortable with his/her prejudices that he/she laid them out without a shred of embarrassment. I couldn’t even be insulted because his claim was so ludicrous. All Southerners? All women? All stupid? All I could think was just how narrow a viewpoint that was. And how sad. Of course, since we were studying Freud, I couldn’t help but also wonder about this young man’s childhood.
I graduated from Free Curriculum and that university Magna Cum Laude. My fellow student never finished.
I wonder how life has treated him. Hopefully, with enough lessons to help him grow and change.
Whatever the case, I now know just how ridiculous it seems to the person being discriminated against when someone declares them unworthy based on factors beyond their control. The natural reaction is simply to shake one’s head in disbelief. As a woman and as a Southerner, I have experienced subtle biases from others many times over the years; however, never with such open disdain. I can only imagine the debilitating effect a constant barrage of this type of debasing behavior must have on people of color, the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and anybody else who falls into the unfortunate category of being considered “less than” by some members of our society.
I will admit I found this young man profoundly ignorant. However, just for the record, my opinion was not based on uncontrollable factors. Instead, it sprang from the one thing he could control: his words. Yes, words do matter. They can elevate or diminish, destroy or transform. If he had come up to me later and said, “I’m sorry,” I would have forgiven him instantly. I hope he did learn over time to temper his opinions and be kinder to those who are different from himself. I believe in transformational stories. I will trust that I was only one rung on the ladder of his recovery to becoming a more decent human being. That is my hope, at least.