A family—a “nice” family—is out for a walk in the park. They stroll by a Cinco de Mayo fiesta noisily underway. Without breaking stride, the parents—“nice” people, really—glance at each other. One of them raises an eyebrow and murmurs, “Different, aren’t they?” The other nods in agreement. And the children—“nice” kids, for sure—study the scene and register the distinction.
Such is the way “nice” people practice prejudice. We who see ourselves as hard-working, family-oriented, garbage-wrapping citizens, who say “Please” and “Thank you” and “Excuse me” and who would never dream of uttering those volatile epithets that trigger race riots, nevertheless, with this seemingly innocuous observation, we “nice” people transmit to our children a powerful history of prejudice and bias.
Fiestas aren’t the only things that evoke comment. For other “nice” people, it may be a yarmulke, or Black English, or a hard hat worn by a woman. For others, it may be the boat people—a curious reaction, considering we’re a nation of immigrants. For still others, it may be pale skin and Anglo-Saxon names. All kinds of “nice” people natter on about differences.
“Different, aren’t they?”: On the surface, it looks, sounds, and feels like a question. When actually posed as such, it can lead to a family discussion of other cultures as well as one’s own, resulting over time in an appreciation of diversity. Too often, though, these simple words are stated as a final, incontrovertible judgment: “They” are not only different from “us,” but the tone of voice makes it clear “they” are inferior, which therefore makes “us” superior.
Ironically, for all its withering freight, this judgment is so often emitted unthinkingly. (And sometimes not so unthinkingly.) The family circle, after all, is where you can let your hair down, kick off your shoes, air your mind. And the mind does get aired—in casual asides, exclamations, dinnertime conversations. Rarely in ideological diatribes, though. “Nice” people don’t go in for those.
However it is delivered, coming from the most potent influence in a child’s life, the judgment sticks. Parents complain that their children don’t listen to them. The problem is, they do. Chances are that when perfectly “nice” people wrinkle their noses at others who don’t look, cook, dress, or pray like they do, very likely this subtle discrimination was imparted by a perfectly “nice” parent. And chances are that if you ask these same people where they picked up expressions like “nigger in the woodpile” or “dumb broad” or “Jew down” or “the man,” very likely the response will be, “My folks always said it” or “Back home that’s just the way we talked. There’s nothing in it.”
But there is. A very great deal lies in it. As Harry Stein writes in Ethics (and Other Liabilities): Trying to Live Right in an Amoral World, “It is much easier not to deal with someone as an individual once he has been reduced to a cliché.” More than relations between individuals is affected, however. In a world that is increasingly interdependent, in a nation that is increasingly heterogeneous, and in a technology that is increasingly dehumanizing, to fixate on differences rather than our common humanity is to fuel the tensions and discontinuities already existing.
This generalization seems self-evident enough. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. to comprehend that an intolerance of differences has caused most of history’s carnage and misery. What may escape our understanding, however, is the incipient intolerance—and thus the danger—of an observation like “Different, aren’t they?” precisely because of its benign everydayness. But the distance between a sniff and a massacre is not so great.
We “nice” people, then, need to sensitize ourselves to this danger. And the next time we feel disposed to point out to our children something about differences, let’s first launder our thoughts of the traces of prejudice we all inescapably bear. Our children’s lives will be richer and possibly less imperiled for it. And so could ours.
A personal review is only the beginning. A public act is also required, especially at a time when racial, ethnic, religious, and sexual violence is accelerating in California and throughout the nation. We must speak up and we must speak out. Whenever a prejudicial remark is made, whether by an avowed bigot or by another “nice” person, whether at a social event or on the job, we must say something. And we might start with the next “harmless” ethnic joke we hear.
Which will cause some discomfort. Somehow “nice” people have come to dread being characterized as prigs. (Talk about volatile epithets!) But we must decide what it is we take a stand on: the best restaurant in town or better attitudes about human beings who are “different.” Because when “nice” people remain silent, the results may not be very nice at all.
Carla Seaquist is a former equal opportunity officer for the City of San Diego and a member of Governor Brown’s Task Force on Civil Rights.