Allow me to set the scene for you: It's mid-May, in the year 2017, I'm in a lovely town in a mid-Atlantic state in the United States of America. The sun is out, the sky is blue, a catered lunch is about to be served, and everyone is joyfully milling about in pastel florals and lightweight suits. I'm leaning down to find my table number card when out of nowhere...
WHAM!!!!! I'm smacked across the face with blatant, discriminatory, personally pinpointed, directed fully toward me racism.
This is no joke. When it happened I was so stunned I couldn't breathe for a moment. Several moments actually. While it's not important what was said, what is important was that it had to do with my being unwelcome there, the person's offense that I was in his presence, and that he thought his remarks were terribly terribly funny.
2017. The United States of America.
For some background, this is person that I've actually known for many years. While I do not know him well, we have been in each other's lives enough for him to have been on the receiving end of my family's generosity for things like like the loss of his wife, a house move, a significant birthday, etc. This is NOT the first time he has been prejudicial and pejorative to me; the times before making it abundantly clear that he would have been proud to wear a brown shirt overseas in the early 1940s.
Enough about him though - he's not worth the time or the effort it takes to type his description. What I do want to talk about here is: What do we do when we're faced with brazen, unabashed prejudice and racism? Aimed at ourselves or at others. Not what "should" we do, but what do we DO?
Firstly I just want to say that I have never understood racism and I never will. For every single human being on the Earth the following things are true:
1. When a human being is cut by a sharp object he or she bleeds blood and it's the color red.
Every. Single. Human. Being.
2. When a human being has dust fly up his or her nose, he or she sneezes. Involuntarily.
Every. Single. Human. Being.
3. If a human being's heart stops beating, he or she dies.
Every single time. Every. Single. Human. Being.
4. At some point during every day a human being will need to rid itself of waste matter that his or her body has generated. So he or she will urinate.
Every. Single. Human. Being.
5. If a new human being is going to be created, it can only be created one way. No matter what color, what race, what genetic makeup, or what religion is observed. There are different methods to achieve this conception, but it can literally only be created one way.
Every. Single. Human. Being.
Obviously I could go on, but the point is that, with rare exception, every single human being has more things going on in it that are the same as other human beings than things going on in it that are different. We may think differently, we may love differently, we may grieve differently, but on the most basic level, every single human being's bodily functions are the same. I would add, in my opinion, that every single human being on the planet wants to live without fear, without discrimination, without neglect, and without indifference. I would argue that just about every human being on some level wants to feel love, to feel seen, to feel joy, and be free to live the life he or she believes he or she is meant to live.
So if we're more alike than we are different, why do so many people hate each other?
I believe it's because every single human being was also given a brain which generates thoughts and ideas and conceptions and opinions. It's when these opinions differ (even down to "I think you shouldn't exist and you think you should") that the problems arise. And more often than not, a person will have certain thoughts or understandings based on what they were taught in childhood, the same way they were taught to walk or dress or feed themselves. For some, prejudice is as ingrained in them as breathing, and for others, tolerance is built and fostered instead.
But that's about who's on the giving end. What about those of us on the receiving end of the racial slurs and unmitigated narrow-mindedness? How do we handle them in a way that doesn't give the bullies the satisfaction of our acceptance and us believing that what they say is true?
Well, one way is to not take anything someone else says personally. Ever. Good or bad, whatever someone else says about you is merely their opinion of you, it is never who you actually are. When an epithet is aimed directly at you, channel Jackie Robinson and duck so you don't get hit. Cover yourself in figurative Teflon so the barbs simply bounce off and don't stick. Remember the schoolyard saying, "I'm rubber and you're glue. Everything you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!" If you don't take on what the offender is trying to put onto you, then they are stuck alone with their misery and overwhelming need to feel superior. Have you ever met a calm, content, or peaceful racist? No, because they are so churned up with their hate and intolerance that they can't relax and enjoy their lives. They have to scream and shout and burn crosses and hold pitchforks to get the debasement out of themselves and onto others. The bigot's bigotry is less about the victim than it is about their own low self-esteem and the sheer discomfort they suffer by having to live in their own skin every day.
Another way to handle these horrible people is to speak up. In dangerous situations we're told to keep quiet, to not make a scene, and to just try to get out of the situation alive. But in the non-violent situations where astonishingly inappropriate things are said, if someone stands up to the bully, there's a chance that the bully will become aware of the offensiveness of his or her actions and want to change. While I would expect on some level that the person who recently tried to offend me would somehow realistically see that what was said was utterly and completely discriminatory, I now know that he actually believed what he said was funny, and believed I would think it was funny too. He's so unbelievably ignorant that it's remotely possible that if his egregious offensiveness was pointed out to him, he might have a tiny bit of remorse about it. (But between you and me I doubt it, and the realization wouldn't stop him from saying it again.)
Whether or not you speak up against offenders, either on your own behalf or on those of others, the most important thing is: DO NOT TAKE IT ON AND DO NOT TAKE IT IN.
IT'S NOT YOURS AND IT NEVER WAS. DO NOT TAKE IT ON AND DO NOT TAKE IT IN.
If you have brown eyes and someone says, "Wow, those are some ugly blue eyes you have," you would look at them like they were nuts and think "Really? What a stupid and ridiculous thing to say." If you're seven feet tall and someone says, "It's a shame that you're so short," you would think, "Seriously? You're kidding, right?" If someone puts you down in a racist or prejudicial way then it's no different. No matter what they say, if they are treating you as less of a 100% human being then it's as silly and absurd as calling a blond-haired person a brunette. It's not true, it makes no sense, and just because someone says it does not make it accurate, valid, or credible.
If you've never had prejudice assigned to you then there's no possible way you can understand what it feels like. But if you have then you know how difficult it is to hear and to try to let it bounce off of you without taking it in. We can quote Eleanor Roosevelt ("No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.") as much as we want but there's a reason why the "rubber-glue" and "sticks and stones" rhymes were devised on those playgrounds long ago. Because words can injure souls, and when we get made fun of or disparaged for nothing but the way we were made then we don't have many built-in defenses against that.
As for myself, I'm putting this latest incident behind me and moving forward because I do not want to spend one more second of my life thinking about this person or what was said to me. And because I really do believe that what goes around comes around, I can be grateful that I am who I am and that I do not have the burden of carrying that person's heavy and damaged heart around for every beleaguered step of life. All I can control is myself, my own actions and my own reactions. Ultimately the racist is going to be more affected by his words and actions than I am, because I have the choice to not accept them. But if racism and prejudice are parts of what make up a person, then they will never truly experience happiness or peace.
As for myself, I'll choose joy and happiness, fulfillment and contentment, sympathy and empathy, serenity and peace. But never the path of least resistance to get there.