My first lesson in prejudice and discrimination occurred at the impressionable age of 5. I grew up in North Carolina as the daughter of tobacco farmers and devoted church-going parents in a community consisting of other family farmers, tenant farmers and blue-collar workers with a smattering of professionals. We lived off the land, sharing what we had with our neighbors and sharing labor when the work was burdensome.
One afternoon after a day of working side-by-side with some tenant farmer neighbors, I ran with their daughter to meet my brother who was about to return from having been at school all day. We skipped hand in hand down the long rocky driveway leading from the farmhouse to the dusty road. The chatter and laughter we heard through the open windows of the approaching orange school bus made us long to be grownups.
However, when the other children on the bus caught sight of two girls, one black and one white, their laughter turned to jeers and taunts and our joyful skips halted. We were both shocked at being ridiculed because of our friendship.
As a young adult, I experienced a very personal lesson in prejudice and discrimination when I responded to a call to serve as a pastor in the Southern Baptist tradition. Door after door closed to me because I was female in a male-dominated profession.
Recently I asked some hiking companions when they first became aware of discrimination in our culture. Among the group, ranging in age from 55 to 70, all admitted to having lived in the midst of segregation and discrimination and not being aware of it — for some not until they were teenagers.
Why is prejudice and discrimination so much a part of our world? One of the common explanations offered in An Introduction to Christian Ethics by Roger Crook is that discrimination is culturally transmitted, and people learn to be prejudiced in much the same way they learn a language or manners. Prejudice toward those who are different is, in a sense, learned from the surrounding culture, much like politeness or rudeness. Conversely, in order to learn to embrace those who are different, one must be intentionally taught or must live in a milieu of acceptance.
Perhaps the best way to learn the impact of discrimination is experientially. In the mid-1960s, an elementary school teacher, Jane Elliott, created a curriculum to teach her elementary school students about discrimination and its effect. The story of her classroom experiment and the impact on her students is told in a documentary aired on Frontline. In the classroom she treated children with blue eyes as superior to children with brown eyes. The outcome of her experiment reveals test scores indicating internalized discrimination. The impact of her teaching experiment was a children’s classroom turned into a community of young adults who believed that everyone — including legislators — should be required to take Jane Elliott’s class.
Is it possible to understand the extreme harm of prejudice without having suffered a personal experience of discrimination? Is it possible to have a textbook knowledge of discrimination without having a real understanding?
The students in Jane Elliott’s class didn’t have to imagine how awful it must feel to experience discrimination; they lived it in their classroom. A classroom experience is not necessary for American Africans or immigrants or women clergy or persons from differing faith traditions or LGBTQ persons; their experiences of discrimination are lived each and every day.
North Carolina is currently in the news for what many would consider a legalization of discrimination. The only way we can overcome the prejudice and discrimination in today’s world is through bringing awareness to its existence, and through intentionally learning to treat one another in the manner modeled by Jesus — with love, dignity and respect.
Isn’t that what Jesus was talking about when he said, “The truth is, every time you did this for the least of my sisters and brothers, you did it for me”(Matt. 25:40 The Inclusive Bible)?