This past Saturday, my kids and I helped Volunteers of America set up for their annual Martin Luther King Jr. Dinner for Those Who Hunger. We rolled silverware, decorated place mats, sorted coats, and donated hygiene items. They serve between 1,500 and 2,000 meals to whomever attends and also pass out hygiene kits and coats.
This is the second year my family has participated in this event and I hope we continue it each year. There are many general reasons I believe volunteering is beneficial for kids:
- Exposure to people of different backgrounds (our neighborhood is very white, middle-class America).
- Help them understand that having a meal, a place to sleep, and warm clothing is not a given for everyone.
- Instill a sense of community and responsibility for helping others.
- Family bonding.
- Learning that giving isn’t only about donating money.
But what I like about this specific volunteer opportunity is their exposure to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his quotes. One of the activities is decorating place mats for the dinner service and VOA provides sheets of MLK’s quotes that the kids can use in their decorations if they’d like. Even if they don’t use them, they can’t help but read them. Every year I am reminded again what a visionary Martin Luther King, Jr. was when I read his quotes that inspired a nation.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
We’ve all heard the “I have a dream…” quote. We all (likely) agree that a person’s character is what counts and that we shouldn’t judge people based on the color of their skin. We’ve been inundated with messages regarding the evils of prejudice. Told that judging someone by their outside is wrong.
We’ve reprimanded our inner voices when we make assumptions about people and tell ourselves that people should be evaluated on their own merit, as individuals and that the world would be better if we couldn’t see a person’s outside and only knew their inside.
But have we gone too far?
Is Prejudice Always Wrong?
Prejudice is making a judgment or assumption about someone or something before having enough knowledge to be able to do so with guaranteed accuracy, or “judging a book by its cover”.
I agree that judging someone based solely upon their color is wrong. It is generalizing and applying preconceived notions to individual people. Individual people that have their own unique story, strengths, weaknesses and characters. However, generalizations and prejudice aren’t limited to color alone.
What comes to mind when you think about these people?
- people with tattoos,
- fit people,
- fat people,
- people with disabilities,
- little people,
- old people,
- barefoot people,
- women with heavy makeup,
- smelly people,
- people in suits,
- short skirt wearing people
- briefcase carrying people,
- backpack wearing people,
- people with a motorcycle,
- people in a minivan,
- New Yorkers,
- and the list goes on.
I guarantee that some idea or preconceived notion came to mind as you read the above list. By the way, don’t get caught in the lure of thinking prejudice is only bad thoughts about a type of person. Good characteristics that you apply to a group of people is also a pre-judgement or prejudice.
So maybe you thought New Yorkers are asssertive, children are energetic, fit people are healthy, a backpack wearing person is likely a student, and a minivan driving person is practical and likely has kids.
Does that mean that ALL New Yorkers are assertive? ALL children are energetic? ALL fit people are healthy? Or ALL people with minivans have families?
Of course not.
But although your preconceived idea may not apply to all cases, it likely applies to more people in that group than not.
I’d argue that children are more likely to be energetic than slothful. Fit people are more likely to be healthy. New Yorkers are more likely to be assertive than shy. And minivan driving people are more likely to have families.
To address the race card (taking a deep breath before I go out on this limb), I’d also say that if I was alone at night and saw a group of young black men with baggy jeans, tough posturing, and loud voices I’d be wary and likely a little scared.
Because they are black? No. If they were asian or white young men in the same situation I’d be equally concerned.
Because of their clothing? A little. I’d still be wary if they were wearing suits although perhaps that would reduce my concern.
Because they are young men? Maybe. I have to admit I’d be less wary of a group of girls or a group of centenarians.
Does that mean that every group of young men hanging out together at night is troublesome? Of course not. Does it mean that I should berate myself for being wary of this situation because it stems from a preconceived idea I have of safety?
I don’t believe so.
Moving Forward with Prejudice
Prejudice helps us evaluate life with the overwhelming amount of data we are presented with every day. It is a necessary tool for humans. So, I am going to encourage you to embrace your prejudice – refine it – and allow it to help you navigate your way through this world.
We need to be cognizant that our prejudices do not apply to every situation or person. Each person has a unique story to tell and strengths to share. We can not allow ourselves to irrationally believe stereotypes are truisms and we must continually challenge ourselves to rethink our “gut” reactions. This applies to good assumptions as much as it does to bad ones.
Not every devout Christian is a good person. There are plenty of examples of people that attend church regularly, or are priests even, that molest children. We can not allow ourselves to blindly apply our prejudice that church going people are good any more than we can allow ourselves to blindly believe all young black men in baggy pants are up to no good.
What do you think?
More MLK quotes that resonate with me:
- All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.
- Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom.
- History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.
- Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
- Means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.
- Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
- Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.
- We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.