Prejudice is a product of evolutionary nature. Every conscious being has the capacity to show prejudice towards another, and in many cases it simply acts as a defensive mechanism which allows a particular being, and perhaps even an entire group or species, to continue existing by eliminating access to the in group. The most important aspect of prejudice is that under some conditions it can be acceptable, and potentially even save one’s life. While the choices many of us make from day to day are not meant to have any negative feeling expressed, many people still struggle with balancing positive prejudice and the negative effect. Much like a news article related to war, the negative aspects of prejudice tend to come to the forefront when one considers the connotations of words like “prejudice”, “stereotype”, “discrimination”, and the like. In a way, societies’ perception of its functionality (or perhaps disfunctionality) is prejudiced towards having information that will intrigue the darker aspects of human nature. The media requires news that shocks its readers. For myself, I saw an extreme enactment of the negative effect when I was a child from a friend’s apartment window. An innocent white man was murdered by a black man in what was later found to be a random hate crime. Witnessing the reality of prejudice when violently acted upon has caused me to reflect on the details of the event, re-evaluate my own prejudice, and consider ways to minimize my negative feelings towards particular people groups and locales.
The scene is still vivid in my mind to this day, and perhaps even more the memory of the sound of the gunshot, seeing the blue and red lights from the police cars, as well as the memorial that was later put on a nearby tree. The murder occurred in a relatively peaceful and tight-nit downtown community in my hometown. My school was right around the corner, and my friends apartment was situated essentially right behind it. We were out on the balcony that night just enjoying the summer air before going to bed, then in what was a moment of stark contrast to the otherwise quiet night we heard a loud bang, and proceeded to look down under a street light to see a man fleeing and another lying on the sidewalk. It was in this relatively short moment that fear began to seep into my mind as we returned into the house to watch from the window in dismay. We were young kids, at about age 8 or so, being inadvertently exposed to violence and hate that we had only heard about in school. Of course, our initial reaction was not that of thinking the shooter’s intention was to express hatred and racism; however over the course of the week the local news had been covering the story and digging into the details after the murderer was captured. At such a young age my ability to comprehend what had truly occurred on a philosophical and psychological level was relatively juvenile; however I had the opportunity to talk with my parents and some adult friends of mine at church to better understand what had happened and more importantly why it had happened. The most intriguing aspect of this story, as horrific as it was for me to experience (albeit from a distance), was how the media had uncovered that the murderer had witnessed a similar event as a child with a white man killing a black man that embedded a prejudice towards white people in him.
Based on this experience (among many others throughout my life, both positive and negative), I have seemingly had difficulty dealing with my prejudice towards black people; especially in the context of a city at night. It is strange that my prejudiced feelings only tend to affect me under conditions that make me recall the night of the murder. For many, the stereotype of the “violent black man” is a fairly common stereotype that is passed through the media; such as in action movies where the lead archetypical character is a drug dealing African American committing acts of extreme violence. My fear then branches off of these artistic depictions mixed with the reality I witnessed. Many people are embedded with prejudice that they learn through secondary sources (school, parents, etc.), however my prejudice is somewhat unique as I have primarily learned about my prejudice through my own subjective experience. As I mature I am able re-examine my negative feelings from my childhood, acknowledge that not all black people are murderers (and likewise, not all white people are innocent), and learn how to have good relationships with those individuals who seem like a potential threat to me as I reflect on my past experiences.
Undoubtedly, my negative feelings towards black people continue to stretch on to this day, and understandably so as I was traumatized at a very young age. Fortunately, my prejudice typically remains in my mind; which in many ways allows it to simply function as a defensive mechanism. I am not a racist, despite the negative experience I had as a child. It is important for everyone to see that the world is not simply black and white. Statistically speaking, I have witnessed one murder over the course of twenty years. This statistic implies that there essentially was one bad person in the mix of all of the African Americans I have seen and met. This statistic is seemingly low on its own merit, however if one considers how African Americans have been mistreated for many decades it is fairly surprising to see such a relatively low hate-crime rate. Perhaps the best way that I have been learning to overcome the stereotype of the “violent black man” is by getting to know people and understand where they are coming from. A prime example of this is acknowledging that in the past I have worked in a band with an African American, and that he still remains my friend to this day; and is a stark contrast to the hate-filled man I witnessed when I was a child.
The foundation of many of the choices an individual makes, ranging from the style of music listened to, to the specific individuals a person wishes to associate with require us all to make some prejudiced choices. While prejudice is inherent to human nature as a defensive mechanism, there is no denying that some people exploit it for violent and hate-filled purposes. As a child I witnessed prejudice in its most extreme negative form, yet as I continue to grow and mature I undoubtedly am learning to put this negative experience behind me and acknowledge the good and bad in every individual, regardless of race.