prejudice is bad actually convince the reader?
A Buddhist monk, famous among his peers for the calm and serenity he constantly expressed, received the visit of a young man one day. The latter had come intent on disturbing the monk’s peace and reputation and began attacking the master with a conglomeration of verbal expressions that even the foulest of men would have bowed their head in shame. Each word that came out of the young man’s mouth was one more colorful than the other. And no remark that he addressed to the monk had anything but a pejorative sense of direction. As the young man went on to gesticulate vividly in a body language that matched his most “candid” acts of expressing, the Buddhist monk did nothing but gently smiled, causing the young man to build up more steam. Exasperated and drained out of energy, the man finally gave up and asked the master about his secret. The Buddhist monk replied: “If someone comes up to me and offers me a present, and I refuse it, to whom does the present go then?” In other words, the hatred, aggressiveness, and venom returned to sender. The conclusion of the story is that the young man inflicted malice upon himself, by having to retain the venom of his behavior within him. The moral would thus be that, if someone tries to hurt another — not including physical injuries in this context — all that someone has to do is simply let the assailant assimilate his own venom. Otherwise stated, just as a rubber ball always bounces back from the wall, so would the harm directed unto another return to sender if it is not held on to and nurtured.
How does this story relate in any way to prejudice? Moreover, how does it relate to Brent Staples, Maya Angelou, Jamaica Kincaid, and Zora Neale Hurston’s essays on their personal experience(s) with prejudice? The answer is that we are not all Buddhist monks. And because we are not all Buddhist monks, there can be no expectation that one is able to simply allow the effects of certain harmful situations to bounce back while being least if at all affected. Because the truth is, prejudice affects and it affects on a level that transcends momentums and conscientious affliction. Staples, because of others’ impressions of him, felt compelled to develop coping mechanisms to “smother the rage I felt at so often being taken for a criminal.” (2) Whistling “bright, sunny selections” as he strolled along the streets of New York at night became the regular habit because white women mostly, as he related in “Just Walk on By,” took one slight look at him and instantly labeled him a “mugger.” Staples realized that his warbling of classical music eased the tension in people when they met the tall, black, young man who appeared to them as threatening. Maya Angelou, listening to the white man’s allusive speech at her graduation, felt crushed at the realization that people, who were neither black, nor red, nor yellow, but indeed white, expected no more from the rest than “to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense.” (30) Jamaica Kincaid, having been instructed repeatedly and from as far back as she could remember, to regard England, the colonizer, with piety, in a manner similar to religious dogmatism, revolted against the country. She will not lose this impression even at experiencing England first-hand, years after her childhood faded and she visited the country herself. Zora Neale Hurston felt alienation for most of her adult life because, as she implied, music does not play the same for blacks and whites. Whereas “the great blubs of purple and red emotions” (3) infuse her spirit and make her feel as though she “is in the jungle and living in the jungle way,” (3) the jazz beats leave no other impression on a white man standing beside her but that the music is “good.” The white man in Hurston’s essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” is in the proximity of Hurston’s world but not exactly inside. Whereas he makes use of merely physical senses, Hurston lets herself be carried away by rhythms of the jungle and sensations transcending the realm of reality and she understands the gap because the man “has only heard what I felt.” (3) The man is thus unable to experience the music in a manner similar to Hurston because, as she perceives, his world is different from hers. In a world where the color of the skin is judged, Hurston experiences intermittent contexts between feelings of proudness that she is “so colored” sometimes, at other times, feeling like she has “no race,” and at the same time feeling “most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” (2)
“Just Walk on By,” “Graduation,” “On Seeing England For The First Time,” and “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” are four essays not of personal lament. The authors do not seek sympathy for the sake of sympathy because sympathy alone will not end prejudice and this is clear to them. What these stories reflect upon is the bitterness of a simulated resilience which many black people have assumed throughout history because they felt powerless and defenseless before the white society. This is why, in relation to her resent towards the English, Jamaica Kincaid notes, “I may be capable of prejudice, but my prejudices have no weight to them, my prejudices have no force behind them, my prejudices remain opinions, my prejudices remain my personal opinion.” (374) The power of prejudice is enforced thus when it becomes generic, when the situation is not that of an one on one fight, but that of a single individual standing exposed before an incommensurable crowd ready to point the poisonous arrows on command. And this is what Kincaid relates, that her prejudice is not as powerful as the one directed by a majority upon a group of fewer people. She wants the reader to understand that, whereas her prejudicial opinions are highly unlikely to turn into deadly weapons, a majority’s behavior will inflict wounds upon an individual, leaving the latter taunting and tantalizing for the rest of his/hers life; because the effects of prejudicial behavior do not bounce back to sender but instead expand and gradually threaten to imbibe the privacy of an individual. Kincaid reveals how this happens when she recalls at the end of her essay, “At that moment, I was thinking, who are these people who forced me to think of them all the time, who forced me to think [â€¦] that I was incomplete, or without substance, and did not measure up because I was not English [?]” (374) Impregnated with other people’s beliefs over England, white people’s beliefs, since her early education years, Kincaid was unable to shake off the memory of her upbringing when everything around her was either “Made in England,” came from England or was about England. She points to the mischievous ways of prejudices which, when enforced, can lead to personal feelings of blame and unauthentic righteousness. When “the sun shone with what sometimes seemed to be a deliberate cruelty,” Kincaid, as a child, believed, “we must have done something bad to deserve that.” (369) The four authors all centralize the pervading effects of prejudicial behavior. To none of them has prejudice ever been a bouncing back circumstance. When he published his essay in 1986, Staples was years past his first experience of being faced with other peoples’ perception of him and still was confronted with similar situations regularly. When Angelou waited in frenzy anticipation the graduation ceremony of her class, even as a child, she was aware of the conditions of the times. Angelou knew that very few black high school graduates will have the opportunity to continue their education and, even those who succeeded this, the majority of them anyway, were happy to aspire “to be carpenters, farmers, handymen, masons, maids, cooks, and baby nurses.” (23) When Donleavy, the spokesman giving the speech at the graduation, implies that this is the norm of things, Angelou’s world shatters to pieces because she understands the simulated resilience at the audience. Angelou, the writer, tells the reader that prejudice crushes the spirit and dehumanizes, leaving he or she who is prejudiced to a mere state of existence and servitude.
Although, in each of the four cases, the authors appear to have experienced prejudice differently and to have dealt with different prejudicial effects, they all share similarity in that they are not intent on convincing the reader that prejudice is bad. To do so, it would mean they have moved beyond their purpose. Instead, they let the experiences related in the stories to speak for themselves, merely focusing on prejudicial effects while letting the reader choose the standpoint; providing the reader with the liberty to judge for himself the circumstances of prejudicial behavior and whether or not it is pervading, afflicting and erroneous. Because they have experienced it first hand, the authors know clearly what the effects are: coercion under certain circumstances to relieve other people of the tensions that their own perceptions inflict on them, the breaking of spirit, the loss of identity, enforced beliefs, alienation, etc. But they do not make a case against prejudice by pointing these. They simply encourage the reader to try to understand prejudice by themselves, having witnessed other people’s experiences. In Staples’ case for example, his appearance and mere presence affect women because of their own perceptions. It is thus their doing and believing that generally affects them. But how they respond to Staples’ presence subsequently has repercussions on the author’s personal well being; which is to say that he has no power of control over his interactions with people because they are intent on stereotyping before anything else. The only control is to sooth his appearance in front of others and to avoid close up confrontations. Staples is thus coerced to adopt a behavior that felons would usually assume: cautiously moving about at night, waiting for lobbies to clear off before entering a building, etc. To other people’s personal fears, he is compelled to respond to not so much to convince them of his integrity but as a coping mechanism that keeps him from dwelling into “madness.” (2) It is a twofold situation thus that offers no relief either to the person prejudicing since it is the very act that leads to threatening assumptions or to the prejudiced who is compelled to deal with the situations.
If the reader takes in the experiences in the essays and reflects upon them, this should be enough to provide a vivid picture of prejudicial processes. Such as people know from others’ experiences that rattlesnakes are poisonous and cause death and do not need to experience it first hand to convince themselves of the reality, prejudice, in a similar manner, can be experienced by what we know and understand of other people’s stories. But there is really no definite answer as to whether or not one needs to experience prejudice first hand in order to understand what it is. This is just one of those more or less philosophical questions to which any given answer will be responded differently and perhaps, in opposition. What do remain however are the facts, the underlying facts at the basis of such stories like the four authors’ above which are meant to serve as a lesson to whoever is willing to listen and understand.
Temporality is an essential dimension of any human being and every society. The historical past of a society implies certain collective biographies, cumulated as more or less similar experiences and shared visions attached to these experiences on premises of belonging to similar social groups. For example, members of a minority group can share a common biography due to the fact that most of the individuals within this particular community were subjected to identical disadvantages, having to confront thus similar inequalities. This is to say that prejudices can be caused by traumatic and conflictive historical situations, dominating situations, or whatever else negative experiences which, embroidered in the collective biographies of generations, result into relationships of rejection. Sociology now considers that the past, existing as an objective process, must not be confounded with how we remember this past, suggesting thus a concise line of demarcation between history and memory. When however the two are confounded and the past is merely a memorial reconstruction, the objective translucency of how the past happened and what exactly happened in the past is lost. Moreover, when a society enforces its past upon a different culture, forcing the latter to ignore and refute its own historical past, the conflict escalates. For example, Kincaid, despite having been infused and saturated with colonizers’ majestic perceptions of England, does not resolve to merely assimilate things such as they are being poured into her mind. Despite her teacher wanting to enforce a personal and collective belief upon Kincaid, she refutes the reality that she is presented with. To Kincaid, a country “that was to be our source of myth and the source from which we got our sense of reality, our sense of what was meaningful, our sense of what was meaningless,” (365) that particular country in fact makes no sense to her at all. Kincaid’s understanding was that, the glorious, historical England, such as she read of it in books, did not match with the “other views, subtler ones, softer, almost not there” (367) but which she was able to perceive nonetheless. These allusive views were meant to erase her sense of identity but not as to merge with English historical values but merely to inoculate her with a sense of gratitude and servitude towards her colonizers. Kincaid thus points to the fact that, what we read in books sometimes is not the accurate representation of the past, the objective past like the one sociology thrives on, but a mere reconstruction of people’s memory and how they want the past to be remembered. And these people then choose to enforce their past on another culture, another identity, deliberately looking to eradicate traditional values. Moreover, Kincaid’s essay reveals that, while we may understand certain historical events, how these unfolded, what these resulted into, the reality usually transcends that reconstruction. The objective past will always assume collateral damages, but a past reconstructed by people’s personal perception will fail to admit any harm inflicted upon another; and will surely be as bold as requesting its victims to accept humiliation and express gratitude. To abnegate an imposed state of being thus becomes the act of resolution for Kincaid to accept her identity, to embrace it and to be proud of it. Maya Angelou does the same thing in her story. She chooses the abnegation of the reality which the white society decided for the black people and challenges that reality: “what school official in the white-goddom of Little Rock had the right to decide that those two men [Jesse Owens and Joe Louise] must be our only heroes? [â€¦] which concrete angel glued to what country seat had decided that if my brother wanted to become a lawyer he had to first pay penance for his skin by picking cotton and hoeing corn [â€¦]?” (29) In this particular context, Angelou does not only vociferate at the present reality but draws upon the past and her ancestors who were first sold into slavery and then freed into a more democratic system of slavery within which black people were allowed to aspire insofar as those aspirations did not exceed the boundaries of the white community’s plans for them. If Kincaid and Angelou are able to refute this imposed reality, then they would have both maintained their identity. And this identity would not make them feel any smaller because of the color of their skin but indeed provide them with a sense of belonging. The realization that they are “colored” does not inflict feelings of shame anymore but rather of self-discovery as though they had been living in a world that smothered identities but it is only by realizing this that they discovered the secret to holding on to their identify. And that was to reject the reality which other people had long decided for them. Zora Hurston takes a similar approach and, in certain circumstances, her skin is “so colored” that a white male’s paleness fails to match what she can provide the world with: symbolic colorful arches of a rainbow that illuminates and comforts people’s sight and their soul.
Perhaps the only way to rid ourselves of prejudice is to accept the hypothetical nature, the dubitative nature of thinking and the so called grounds for it. It is not man without prejudice but the opened mind which will continue to confer us grounds for thought. The capability to understand that people are different and to nevertheless accept that without inflicting any conscientious wounds upon them will make prejudice less bitter and the effects less pervading. Assumptions lead to a loss of interpretative landmarks and justify unreasonable any points.
Angelou, Maya. “Graduation.” Web. 7 Nov. 2013.
Hurston, Zora. “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” Web. 7 Nov. 2013.
Kincaid, Jamaica. “On Seeing England For the First Time.” Web. 7 Nov. 2013.
Staples, Brent. “Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space.” Web. 7 Nov. 2013.
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