Wednesday, July 12, 2006

TBF: Racism and Prejudice

Response to The Brian Factor
March 2. Topic: Racism and Prejudice.
In one of my American history classes a couple years ago, our teacher had us do an exercise called a "privilege walk" or something. Strangely, this altered my perspective on my life.

The students stood in a line and the teacher said random things like "step forward one step if your parents took you to see plays, author readings, or musical performances" and "take two steps backward if you have been denied a job because of ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation." Ultimately, those who had been more "privileged" in life would be several paces forward while the "less privileged" would be farther behind.

It surprised me how far back I was. It's not like I was one of the ones farther back, but I had expected to be one of the people in the front due to the fact that I'm white and come from a middle class family. (I'm not being prejudiced; this is the sad reality stemming from our country's close-minded WASP legacy and it sucks.)

What kept me back were the realizations that I had, several times, been a victim of sexual discrimination.

It's not like I'm ignored or talked down to every day because I'm female; it's primarily the fact that I have been sexually harrassed.

The worst episode took place over a month or two when I was 14. I had just been sent to boarding school and hadn't fully adjusted to the transition or made a large network of friends yet. I hung out with a male staff member who was really funny but made me uncomfortable. At first, I didn't realize what he was doing; later I knew something was wrong but couldn't pin down exactly what was making me uncomfortable and why.

One day he pressured me into telling him some rather personal information. Soon after another staff member confronted me about having an "inappropriate conversation with a male staff member" and I was punished by some of the normal school consequences: the only people I was allowed to talk to for at least a month were female staffers and four specific girls, I had to spend all my free time sitting in a desk-chair doing writing assignments, and instead of going to my academic classes I had to work in a field digging up and hauling rocks. Of course, with so many people saying and thinking that the incident was my fault (several students were upset at me for accusing him of harassing me), combined with my naivete, totally shook my self-confidence and I began blaming myself as well.

Perhaps another month later, that staff member was fired or forced to quit because he had had sex with another female student. I never got an apology from anyone. And that's the worst part of the whole ordeal that no one ever apologized for the blame and shame I felt even after he was busted for doing sexual things with at least two students.

And that blame and shame I felt is something that has contributed to my unexpected position at the end of that exercise. After all, each individual has some amount of control as to the extent of the discrimination they are subjected to. After that experience I began noticing other acts of sexism and harassment, and even had the confidence to stand up and expose another male staffer's behavior towards one of my good friends (which prevented her from going through a similar experience as I, as she was as naive of it as I had been) which also resulted in him having to quit.

But what I think is this: prejudice is inevitable; we each are, to some extent, a product of our family and society. Everyone has some illogical preconceptions of different ethnicities, lifestyles, or genders, but what is important is if you consciously agree with these biases and allow them to affect your behavior. For example, I can't control the automatic unease I feel when I see someone who resembles that man, but I can push aside that thought and remind myself that the actions of one man do not represent the opinions and actions of everyone who looks like him. I act normally and reserve judgement until I gain an insight into each individual.

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