Sunday, April 1, 2012

Reserving Judgement

Trayvon Martin.  George Zimmerman.  Right now, these two names cause more turmoil throughout our nation than any others.  Their simple mention spurs discussions and arguments full of anger, resentment, and outright hate.  The entire situation boils down to one simple, common, and extremely dangerous concept - prejudice.

More often than not, the word prejudice conjures ideas of racial profiling, but the definition of the word is not exclusive to skin color.  We practice prejudice constantly, making decisions about people without the slightest bit of information.  I am sitting in a Starbucks writing this, and every time someone walks in the door, I form an opinion about that person based on what I see.  I am pre-judging them.

  1. A family just walked in.  I see they are well dressed, their clothes appear to be taken care of.  I assume they have money.
  2. Some young men walk in.  Their faces sport beards and glasses, their hair is mussed in a controlled fashion, anchored by product.  Earrings decorate their lobes.  Their dress is casual, but hip - faded jeans and t-shirt for one, untucked button down with a tie over dark jeans for the other.  My first impression is Indie rocker types.  Being that it is Sunday and churches are nearby, my assumption is praise band members.
  3. Two middle-age men come in wearing comfortable clothes, and short hair.  The act important, look meaty, but in that swollen, I-haven’t-worked-out-in-a-couple-years way.  Their gestures are large, they speak in loud voices.  My assumption is former high school or college athletes who are now involved in sales.

While none of these first impressions will affect my life or theirs, the fact that I have prejudice for these people is still real.  My opinions were formed without information and were based solely on how they looked and how they acted during my brief encounter.  My assumptions are based on my experiences, which have nothing to do with the truth.  If I encountered them in the future, my prejudice would inform they way I deal with them.
These kind of prejudices create the unfortunate and sad situation in Sanford, Florida.  

In the first instance, the events leading up to the encounter between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin were rooted in prejudice.  But, without any further knowledge of George Zimmerman’s mindset, the only prejudice we can assume is that, as a member of the neighborhood watch, Zimmerman was fundamentally prejudiced against unfamiliar individuals walking his block after dark.  On the evening of February 26, Mr. Zimmerman’s duty was to keep an eye on the neighborhood and inform the authorities of any potential wrong doing.  He did that.  It was his choice to follow Martin, instead of letting the police handle the situation, that lead to the shooting.
The second instance of prejudice surrounding the situation is rooted in the hearts of the rest of us.  From the moment the story blew up on social media, the news crews, newspapers, and talking heads have all pushed the public in thousands of different directions.  We have heard that Trayvon was an angel, a druggie, a violent kid, a gentle, respectful young man.  We have heard that George Zimmerman is a racist, a good wholesome man, or a violent individual.  It is hard to put the pieces together, and the media, eager for ratings, certainly tries hard to do it for us.
Keeping ourselves un-prejudiced towards someone or a situation is hard.  With the barrage of media reports from opposing camps, the ramped up rhetoric from social organizations, the explosion of social media opinions, it is no wonder George Zimmerman has gone into hiding.  This kind of un-informed prejudice leads to mob mentality.  Someone will go too far, and instead of one dead young man, we could end up with two.  We can only hope no one decides to take justice into their own hands.
Prejudice is dangerous on a more personal level as well.  As a teacher, I know I practiced prejudice towards students on campus.  I made assumptions based on how a student dressed, or who a student was with.  I lumped them into groups, which is unfair to the student, who has to dig their way out of the pit into which I have thrown them.  It is also unfair to me, as I haven't given myself a chance to develop an accurately informed opinion.

We can work to limit prejudice in our own lives.  Don’t make up your mind about someone until you know about them.  If you have deep seated prejudice already, give those individuals or that group the opportunity to prove you wrong.  You may be surprised at how often you are.

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