This is me in my winter jacket. Looks cool, right? I bought it in Iraq back in ’06 at a Turkish bazaar and have since added patches from every unit I served in combat with. From my time with the US Navy back in the 1980s to my days in the US Army Reserves, this jacket is a roadmap of my service. It’s also nice and warm, and now that cold weather is setting in, I seldom leave the house without it.
So a few days ago I was waiting in line at a store when a stranger walks up and thanks me for my service. I accepted his handshake and said something nice to him…and then he made an assumption. He says to me, “Hey, that was some victory we won, wasn’t it.” I blink, not quite following him. Then the guy elaborates, “Last Tuesday, some victory for us right?”
I raise my voice, and in a not too polite tone, inform him that I don’t consider the election of a fascist to the highest office in our land to be any kind of victory. The man lets go of my hand and steps back with a look of absolute shock. Without another word to me, he finishes his transaction and hurries out of the store. This man made an assumption about me after knowing only one thing, that I was a veteran. Boy, did he make a big mistake!
However, that got me thinking; how often do I make assumptions about people based on just a little irrelevant information. This is, of course, the root of all bigotry–unfounded assumptions. We know this academically, but on first impression, we often make bad assumptions about people nonetheless. When you see a cowboy in a pickup truck, do you assume he’s a Trump supporter? When you see a young woman in a pants suit, do you assume she voted for Hillary?
The sad truth is, we often find ourselves making such assumptions and then having to reel them back in once we actually get to know a person. Of course, some people don’t bother trying to reel anything back in at all and instead try to push their predjudices out. I recently got a Facebook post that looked like this:
Obviously, this image makes several bad assumptions. Folks, I’m telling you, it is up to us to fix this. Because when a cancer like this is left unchecked it only spreads through the body politic. Are there Muslims who want to take over American society? Well, yes, in any sufficiently large group there are always some butt-heads. But you and I know it’s just as ludicrous to assume that all Muslims feel this way as it is to assume that all veterans support Trump!
When I encounter this kind of bigoted assumption, I find myself working overtime to correct it…and it is always an uphill battle. The meme has a simple message, and it’s intended target is someone who likes simple messages. Therefore, the task is to break it down into simple questions that challenge the bigoted assumption.
I ask questions like, “Do you know any Muslims? Do you think all people in a group think the same way? If all Muslims think the same, why are there so many divisions in Islam such as Sufi, Ahmadiyya, Shia and Sunni? Do all Christians think alike? If all Christians think differently, why do you think all Muslims think alike? Do you think the children of Muslim immigrants will grow up to think like their parents, or will they assimilate American values?” And so on and so on. The more questions you ask, the more obviously ludicrous the unchallenged, bad assumption becomes.
As you can see, it can take a long conversation to dispel a prejudice. Often I find that it a hard fact that lies are simple and the truth is complicated. But people, if we are going to reel back bigotry, we have to try!
You know not everyone with a bigoted idea in their head is a bad person, so reel in your own assumptions and roll up your sleeves. Many people we would call bigots are simply scared and ignorant. This holds true, regardless of what group they happen to be scared of. But the fact is that people are people. Some you can reach and others you can’t. But you don’t know which is which until you get to know them, and only by engaging with them can you hope to enlighten them.
The dangers of making general assumptions about any group of people are written all over our history books. Trump won by dividing the American people, therefore we will only win by uniting the American people. So now is the time for us to learn from our history so that we do not repeat it.
In that vein, I would like to share with you some words of wisdom from a man who knows too much about this particular subject, Mr. George Takei. May you find in his life story the ammunition you need to fight the assumptions of scared and ignorant fellow Americans.
By Clayton J. Callahan