This I Believe
I believe that although prejudices are universal to humanity they are not constructive. They are learned within our social groups and therefore tend to be invisible to us. We can overcome them only after we are aware of them. I was raised a Quaker in Ohio with strong values of acceptance. I learned that all people should be treated equally and prejudice was strongly discouraged. As most kids do, I grew up with the assumption that people everywhere held the same values I did.
My adult life was spent living in Tennessee, Denmark and eventually in Bulgaria. I noticed that all cultures had their own prejudices, but the situation in Bulgaria stood out. Bulgaria in the early 90’s was in the midst of transition from Communism to Democracy. Having been very isolated under the communist years, the people were now free to learn about outside cultures again, but were nervous of these new freedoms as well. They had been living very cautiously for the past forty years, ever distrustful of speaking in groups, and always trying to avoid drawing attention to themselves from the authorities.
We toured the National Museum, with two teenage girls, friends of my family, who served as translators for us. We were anxious to learn everything we could about this very old country. The girls were quite knowledgeable of their Nation’s history and they were happy to share with us. Bulgaria has had many periods of oppression under the rule of the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Ottoman Empires and the Communists (not exactly an empire). I was very interested to see influences from the various cultures that ruled Bulgaria and how these outside cultures modified Bulgarian traditions. When I shared these interests with the girls their response surprised me. They were fiercely opposed to the idea that Bulgarian culture was shaped in any way by any other culture; certainly not any influences visible in the Bulgaria of today. They simply saw oppression by the outsiders, but could not acknowledge any cultural influences from these groups. I was stunned. There were noticeable physical (cuisine, interior décor, architectural) remnants as well as behavioral influences all around me. Was this strong prejudice so invisible to them? These girls could for example, hate a Greek, which they saw on the street, for no other reason than the historic memory of the Greek oppression in 300 BC.
Returning to Ohio after two years in Bulgaria, I was able to look around with fresh eyes. I began to recognize prejudices within myself as well as those in the adults who influenced me most when I was a child. This surprised me at first. Trying to undo these prejudices within me is ongoing, because acceptance of people that are different is not easy. It requires a level of risk, mixed with some open mindedness and curiosity. In the end it allows for a more peaceful existence. This, I believe, makes it all worth while.
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