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Pet Sins January 2011

'I love all people' (but perhaps not all to the same degree)

M is a small business owner in the US. Kind and helpful, the middle-aged fatherly figure was well-liked by his customers and neighbors. "I love all people," M often said to his customers. "My religion accepts all people. We welcome everyone and don't discriminate." Whenever he saw interracial couples or transracial adoptees, he took care to point out the interracial aspect of the relationship to others, saying, "This is a wonderful thing. This is the way our world should go. We should all intermarry and become one and the same so that human distinctions will be eliminated and there will be no more conflicts."

Although not all his customers appreciated his rather undisguised attempts at 'witnessing' for his faith, that aspect of his behavior was usually overlooked because people felt that whatever secondary motivations M had for his propagandistic sweet talk, he had good intentions and no one could really take issue with his ideals concerning the equality of all humans and the idea that all social barriers that divide us can and should come down.

M clearly didn't just see himself as a well-intentioned person who treats each individual who came into his life with the same grace regardless of their background. His speech seemed to indicate that he saw himself as a strong anti-racist ally. But there were times when his words and actions showed that perhaps he did not view all people quite the same:

One day, M went to do some work at a customer's residence. Standing in the yard, he saw a black male slowly drive by, peering intently at some distant target. "Who is that black man? Has he come to steal?" He immediately asked the homeowner.

"Oh, that fellow?" The customer replied. "He is my neighbor's friend. He visits often."

The black man drove around the cul-de-sac and out of the neighborhood without stopping. M asked. "If he is here to visit his friend, why doesn't he call ahead to find out if his friend is home?"

Now, to be fair to M, anyone of any color driving at a very slow speed through a neighborhood is likely to come under suspicion of casing the place for opportunities, be it a real estate deal or a break-in target, if s/he is not simply lost. The driver's behavior was indeed somewhat unusual, and M's suspicions were not unreasonable. But his observation that the driver was black was unnecessary. If there were multiple cars driving around, and only one had a driver of a specific race, then it made sense to mention the race of the driver. But in this case, there was only ONE car moving in the neighborhood. If M's purpose sole was to identify the suspicious behavior of the car's driver, he could just as easily have said, "Why is that car moving so slowly? Is the driver casing the neighborhood?" And whoever he was talking to would have no problem at all determining exactly which car and driver he was talking about. There was only ONE car present, for crying out loud. Why go through the trouble of mentioning the driver's race?

Unfortunately, that was not the only time that M unknowing broke the illusion of universal, undiscriminating colorblind love that he had projected around his public persona.

On another occasion, a young black man carrying a backpack walked by the entrance of M's business. After the man passed by, M immediately went to the door and locked it. Two customers were still within the business premises. Since it was not closing time, one of the customers asked M why he locked the door. M explained that his business had recently been harassed by a "black man" who had walked in asking for free services. The customer asked if it was the same man who just passed the entrance. M said, "No." This begs the question of why in the world he would get the idea of locking his door right after the random unacquainted black man walked by when numerous non-blacks had passed by just moments before on the same sidewalk. The black man who just passed by did not try to enter the business. He had not even looked in.

M then turned to the other customer present, launching into an account of how the other "black man" (apparently totally unconnected with the present day's passer-by) who had entered his establishment some days ago spun a flimsy story and made pretentions of previous acquaintanceship in order to swindle him.

"Was that man dressed like the person who just passed by?" the first customer asked. "Was he carrying the same kind of bag?"

"No," admitted M without irony. He said the alleged con man was middle age, well-dressed, and carried a briefcase. It would seem to an average observer that there was no real possibility that the recent passerby could have been mistaken for the alleged swindler, even at first glance.

M did not stop with complaining about that one con man. He went on to tell his customers about yet another "black man" who had come into his business months before, allegedly also "telling lies" in an effort to get something for nothing. Even if we give M the benefit of the doubt and assume that both men who approached his business were indeed swindlers, M's approach of pointing out someone's race while criticizing their behavior was something he never did for whites.

M's attitudes and actions towards blacks are unfortunately not uncommon in the United States. The same words and actions coming from anyone else would have been just as deplorable, but hardly surprising or remarkable. But in the case of M, it was more shocking and disappointing because M had directly betrayed his own stated, cherished values and worse, did not even realize it.

Unfortunately, the subtle prejudices expressed by 'loving, kind-hearted' people like M may wield more influence over the psyche of the average American than extreme views expressed by over-the-top hatemongers. In the case of obvious bigots, listeners can easily conclude. "He's being totally biased and hateful. I don't want to be like him." But in the case of these charming, kindly, subtly-bigoted individuals, especially those well-regarded in the community, some of the people within their sphere of influence might, out of personal loyalty, feel guilty about coming to negative conclusions about the things they say. "She can't be a bigot. She's such a nice person who treats everyone kindly. Maybe she has good reasons for saying what she says."

M is not a person of 'bad intentions', and had he realized the biases behind his words and how his choice of words contribute to the hurtful stereotypes already present in society, he would have undoubtedly chosen to speak differently. M is clearly conscious of the potential impact of any negative statement in which someone's group identity is mentioned, at least when it comes to non-blacks: Whenever M retold stories of his persecution as a minority in his home country, which was ruled by the majority Group X (another group also stereotyped in the US), M would take care to tell the listener that most Group X people were decent folk, that it was only the government that oppressed him, and that there were many moderate people from Group X who helped him. But so far he has neglected to mitigate the negative impression left by his words about blacks in the same way he mitigates the things he says about members of Group X.

Perhaps our society has so taken for granted the common prejudices against blacks that biased observations are not considered 'biased' by many people, but rather seen as normal, unremarkable, expected statements. Most likely this 'good person' M will remain a propagator of bias precisely because he doesn't even realize the problem. There is more hope for people who don't consider themselves particularly 'good' but who are aware of their prejudices, because those who are aware of their biases can take steps to fix them, or at least not spread their prejudices around.