While bigotry and prejudice still run rampant in many ways, America is a country that works tirelessly to fight discrimination. I can’t think of another nation in the world that takes a stronger stance against persecution based on race, color, religion, political views, gender, economic class, or other personal qualities.
We are far from perfect in this ongoing battle, but significant strides have been made in our nation’s short history to implement change. For example, our first black president is currently getting ready to leave office. One of the two candidates who ran to replace him was a woman. And our president-elect chose the first woman to run his campaign and is considering a gay man for a cabinet post.
If that’s not progress, I don’t know what is! But how do you handle bigotry when it hits close to home? How do you deal with parents who seem to display forms of prejudice?
What is Bigotry?
At the very basic level, bigotry occurs when someone is intolerant or hostile towards those who are different. Bigots are often seen as closed-minded individuals who can’t handle anyone who thinks differently than they do. Calling someone a bigot is a pretty strong statement, so it’s important to look below the surface and see what’s really going on.
Look Beyond the Language
I’ve recognized that people may say things that sound hateful, but when you take the time to get to know them better you realize that their unrefined speech was not intended to hurt anyone. My father and many of his generation are great examples of this.
My father was the son of Russian immigrants who fled the Tsarist revolution at the beginning of the 20th century. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York, amongst many other immigrant families. I grew up listening to his exciting stories of the turf wars that took place between the children of these immigrants as they sought to establish themselves in the New World. All of the different groups, the Jews, Italians, Irish, and so on, worked to stake a claim in their part of the neighborhood. They fought each other to protect their own.
When my father told these stories, he often used what some people would call derogatory terms to describe his ethnic adversaries. If you didn’t know him, you would consider him a bigot. Unfortunately, that would be a rash assessment that would take away from who my father really was.
My father had close friends of every ethnic background. He employed a wide variety of sales people in his insurance agency and he deliberately recruited brokers of different races, religions, and ethnicities to prospect their home communities. This was such a standard practice that the insurance industry actually has a name for it: “natural marketing.”
What Bigotry Isn’t
So how do you explain his so-called bigotry? First of all, you must recognize that if you grow up in a rough neighborhood, you develop rough language. Name-calling and putting others down is a way to fend them off and keep them in their place. As a result, you develop a thick skin and don’t get offended at the smallest things.
You learn to shrug it off and develop strong friendships and business relationships regardless. The raw language becomes part and parcel of the kibitzing and fellowship. While people should not act this way in polite company, the foul language or derogatory terms do not equate to malicious intent. If you haven’t experienced life in a neighborhood or culture like this, it’s tough to understand and relate to.
Once I grasped this concept, it helped me identify what bigotry is and isn’t. When guys from the Old Neighborhood trash-talk each other over beers, they aren’t displaying bigotry. You may cringe when they pick up the microphone at you cousin’s wedding, but you know they still have a heart of gold
In a country and culture that work hard to overcome prejudice, it can be very easy to label people as bigots by the words they say. But remember, different generations and geographical areas have different ways of communicating. Make sure you honor your parents by respecting their history and taking the time to understand where they are coming from.
Can you relate to this? Do you have similar stories to tell about your parents or grandparents? I’d love to hear them!