I believe that what we expose ourselves to and the environment in which we live dictates our view of other and ultimately of ourselves. Prejudice and stereotypes are the result of a lack of experience and understanding of the world outside our every day lives. It is human nature to fear the unknown, and we label and categorize those we don’t know as a means of protecting our fragile grasp on order and stability.
My personal habitat can be described as an upper middle class town in the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation in the world. Where people are color-coded and expected to fill their role in society and be grateful for the opportunity; Asians are labeled as our threatening and over-achieving rivals, Arabs are mythical people, Blacks are for entertainment, and Latinos are the industrial and agricultural legs on which we stand. The job of the white majority is to be educated, successful, and self-assured of their position at the top of the food chain.
Now I can’t consider myself an unbiased observer in this cyclical system of human segregation. I can criticize and rant about the injustice all I want but still I find myself college bound with a Mexican house cleaner and reaping the benefits of imposing on the lives and rights of others. I pride myself on the ability to recognize the struggles these people face and trying to differentiate myself from the ignorant members of my class. Yet this is nowhere near enough to rid myself of the stereotypes and prejudice that has been burned in my mind. How could I be completely open minded and accepting without leaving my protective bubble?
My first truly eye-opening experience came with my first serious boyfriend. He was tall, handsome, and one of the most genuinely nice guys you would ever meet. Yet I found myself worrying about the opinions of my family and friends. I was ashamed and confused that my hesitation was based on the fact that he was a bona-fide Mexican. Everything about him sounded so blatantly stereotypical; he works in a mechanic shop, his parents are illegal aliens, he plays soccer, and has approximately 4,000 cousins. With all of this weighing on my mind I found myself hesitant to immerse myself in his world as much as he had in mine. My family and friends had grown to love him and be happy for the both of us, and now it was my turn to visit his habitat.
He brought me to his family reunion and I was amazed by the rush of emotions I felt. I was instantly greeted by warm smiles, hugs, and greetings in broken English. I saw Aunts and Uncles who had traveled miles to see their loved ones and create those family memories for their children. These people looked exactly like those who would have normally seemed like a completely different class and species; the Taco Bell employees and the car-washers that keep our country functioning on so many levels. However, once I was on their turf I felt the truth extinguish all of those old views. These were people who weren’t afraid to fight for a better life and did whatever it took to make it happen. Wouldn’t anyone in their right mind do the same? As the reigning class, we look down on these people just because they weren’t born with the rights that we were, when in all honesty we are essentially the same. We turn something that is sheer luck into a means of class separation and create this superiority complex to grant ourselves the power suppress others when in reality, no one has that right.
I believe that in order to completely embrace life one must step outside their nest. To be immersed in something foreign and frightening, and realize that it is someone else’s reality. It is certainly easier to believe the ignorant statements of those too afraid to bother with things like being open minded to both people and experiences. It is not merely enough to appreciate differences, but to realize that we all have essentially the same desires; to live well and be given that opportunity. Our nation is like a puzzle, made of hundred’s of different cultures and ideas that come together for a common purpose. Every piece is equally important to the whole. This is what I believe, and deep down this is what we all know to be true.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.