A Reflection on Prejudice and Discrimination

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Former councilwoman Maria Berriozábal stands with more than 70 non-discrimination ordinance supporters to address local media at the back entrance to City Hall. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Former councilwoman Maria Berriozábal stands with more than 70 non-discrimination ordinance supporters to address local media at the back entrance to City Hall. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Robert RivardWhen I was a very young boy, my mother drove my two brothers and me from our semi-rural home in Portage, Michigan to downtown Kalamazoo to visit a public dental clinic for free fluoride treatments. A trip to the big city was an infrequent and exciting proposition, and I watched out the back seat window, taking in the unfamiliar sights with curiosity and lots of questions.

“Look Mom!” I remember saying as I stared and pointed at some men standing on the sidewalk, men unlike any I had ever seen. They saw me point and stared back.

“Those are Negroes,” my mother replied as we slowly passed. “They should be working, not standing around.”

Those might not be the exact words she uttered, and she might have said even more, since forgotten. But unlike most childhood memories, I’ve never forgotten that moment when I first saw black people and heard my mother’s disdainful and judgmental words.

Our French Canadian and Irish-American Catholic family came with the usual set of prejudices and narrow-minded thinking. We were descended from people on both sides who had lost bitter wars and found themselves on the wrong side of history. What my parents didn’t openly say about others was, often as not, expressed more directly by grandparents and aunts and uncles at occasional family reunions. We kids unknowingly absorbed everything we saw and heard, whether it was something said within our family against someone else, or when our own family fell victim to prejudicial treatment from others.

The Main Plaza fountain, a crowd of revelers gathered in celebration of the recent Supreme Court decision declaring DOMA and Prop 8 unconstitutional. Photo by Iris Dimmick (Instagram).

The Main Plaza fountain, a crowd of revelers gathered in celebration of the recent Supreme Court decision declaring DOMA and Prop 8 unconstitutional. Photo by Iris Dimmick (Instagram).

My parents and their parents, I came to understand as I reached adulthood, were provincial and narrow-minded. Unlike myself.

Only in my adult years did I come to realize that I, too, carried my fair share of prejudices around the world with me, even as my own success as a journalist afforded me advantages and privileges and a far more worldly existence and set of experiences. The fact that I’ve lived and worked in various countries and culture, have always been comfortable with urban diversity, speak a second language, all that actually masked the prejudices I had inherited and never quite faced or overcame.

I merely kept my prejudices under control, but they were still there and they still influenced who I was and how I viewed others. I remember some years ago, when the gay marriage debate first took root, that it seemed like a very strange proposition even to people like myself, that is, open-minded progressive people. Civil unions made sense to protect private property, medical decisions, inheritance, and other civil rights, but wasn’t marriage about a man and a woman? Fortunately, the gay marriage issue unfolded far from Texas and I was given time to watch, listen and learn.

My older brother Ken and I actually were at Cambridge City Hall the night gays were first allowed to be married in Massachusetts. This time Rivard brothers could look on to an unfamiliar tableau with far more understanding and appreciation than that long ago day in Kalamazoo.

My thinking evolved with the debate, of course, mostly because I’ve become a better listener as I’ve grown older and because gays and lesbian happen to be a much bigger part of daily life for me and everyone else than they were when keeping a low profile was their only option in life. It now strikes me as foolish and more than a bit naive that I saw myself at the center of reasonable thinking when the issue first arose in the public conversation. I’m not alone there. Just about everyone I know who expresses a clearly prejudicial viewpoint, no matter how well-intended and without malice, does so out of ignorance or fear or both and the belief that their thinking is “normal”. What scares us the most is usually what we understand the least.

My mother missed a crucial teaching moment that morning in Kalamazoo in the mid-1950s. She could have imparted some invaluable insights to three impressionable young boys. Instead of just taking care of our teeth that day, she could have helped her sons tends their hearts and souls. Instead, we were left to stare at the strange men, who didn’t look like us and who had a name: Negroes. We were regular people who didn’t need a defining name, right? Or so we thought and would continue to think for years.

Citizens hold prayer sessions on the steps of City Hall in protest of the proposed non-discrimination ordinance. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Citizens hold prayer sessions on the steps of City Hall in protest of the proposed non-discrimination ordinance on Wednesday. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Not many years later, the country entered the Civil Rights era and the advent of television in every household brought history right into our home as it was being made. We boys began to learn for the first time about racial inequality, particularly in the South, that somehow didn’t square with what we were learning in school about the American Civil War, a President named Abraham Lincoln, and the end of slavery.

I’ve had to hit the reset button many times in my adult life to better tend my relationships with blacks, with gays, with the obese and with others. Two things have always helped me along: People who are smarter, more compassionate, and set a more embracing example than I, and the laws of the land staying ahead of society and its most backward impulses.

Thursday morning, the San Antonio City Council will take a big step forward, albeit an awkward one, when it approves an anti-discrimination ordinance extending greater public protections to gay, lesbian, and transgender citizens and veterans as well. Too bad it won’t be unanimous.

The Council members who oppose the initiative carried by District One City Councilman Diego Bernal will find themselves on the wrong side of history and maybe even the wrong side of their own conscious realizations, if not today, then one future day when their thinking and attitudes evolve and mature.

Despite an embarrassing and hateful disinformation campaign mounted by the opposition, this ordinance will not trespass on the rights of a single straight person. The only threat to be found in public bathrooms will continue to come from people, mostly straights, who use the facilities and don’t bother to wash their hands afterwards.

Former councilwoman Maria Berriozábal stands with more than 70 non-discrimination ordinance supporters to address local media at the back entrance to City Hall. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Former councilwoman Maria Berriozábal stands with more than 70 non-discrimination ordinance supporters to address local media at the back entrance to City Hall. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

On a more serious note (germs actually are serious business),  I wish Council members intending to vote “No” would consider their own lives and the moments when they have been the victims of prejudice and ignorance. That should resonate with the four possible “No’ votes:

  • An Asian-American immigrant now living he American Dream.
  • A black woman who knows better than me what it means to enjoy some, but not all, of the rights due every citizen under the law.
  • An inner city Mexican-American woman who went on to attend law school and become an attorney and officeholder, undoubtedly only a few generations, like me, removed from immigrant family members who worked hard yet realized little in the way of equal rights or any material reward.
  • A white American man who should know that nothing in his life will change for the worse if he gives people, unlike him, people who may very well make him feel personally uncomfortable — which is okay to acknowledge — the same legal protections we white American males take for granted.
Revelers gather in front of the Bexar County Courthouse to celebrate the Supreme Court decision finding DOMA and Prop 8 unconstitutional. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Revelers gather with GetEqualTX in front of the Bexar County Courthouse to celebrate the Supreme Court decision finding DOMA and Prop 8 unconstitutional. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The opposition, as so often the case, centers in no small part around organized religion, which also is at the center of much of history’s strife and misunderstanding. This isn’t meant as indictment against organized religion, but let’s be honest: most churches tend to appeal to people who look alike, think alike and are easily led astray by their shepherds, through ignorance and misunderstanding to fear people who don’t look or think like they do. Look at how most organized religions are struggling to deal with gender equality, or better put, struggling not to deal with gender equality.

I’m not sure a “Yes” vote will do much for the political careers of Bernal, Mayor Julián Castro or the majority who join them in passing the ordinance. It just happens to be the right thing to do in this instance. But the “No” voters on Council should think about history and the evolution of social views. Not much attention is paid today to the white officeholders who supported landmark Civil Rights legislation. Their names now are mostly confined to books, and fewer and fewer of us actually read history. But no one forgets those who stood in the way of black people gaining their full rights under the law. Many of those “No” voters back then have since expressed remorse and wished they could do it differently if given another chance.

Today would be a good day for everyone who serves on City Council to get it right the first time. Vote yes, get comfortable with your decision, and welcome history as it records another day in the life of a changing city.

 

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook. 

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15 thoughts on “A Reflection on Prejudice and Discrimination

      • Robert, I can always count on you to make sense of something I wish I could express in words. I am a child of the south who had a very prejudiced father. Yet he was universally though of as one of the kindest of men. I try to think of all the people expressing hateful and uninformed views with a man like my father. Maybe they have kindness tucked away somewhere. “You have to be taught to hate” rings over and over in my mind. Thank God I have done a better job with my child, or maybe she formed her opinions all by herself. In either case, prejudice in our family has ended. I wish the same for all families.

  1. Thanks for sharing your personal story. By the way, I don’t think Diego will run for Mayor any time soon, as he stated during the meeting last month at the Filling Station ( I think you showed up after he stated this) but I hope he stays involved as much as he can with our City Council District 1 after he leaves office in the future. I don’t always agree with Bernal’s decisions but I know he’s looking out for the constituents before his political career.

  2. Thank you for this article. One thing to mention about the part on “The opposition, as so often the case, centers in no small part around organized religion, which also is at the center of much of history’s strife and misunderstanding.” While I agree there is definitely some truth to that statement especially with regards to theology and practices of the Roman Catholic Church I’ve noticed a change in the Mainline Protestant traditions. I’m lesbian with a partner and we have two children. We left the Roman Catholic Church almost four years ago for the Episcopal church to find a more progressive, yet still deeply rooted in tradition, place of worship. We worship at a downtown Episcopal church where there are several open gay and lesbian families some of which serve on the vestry, teach Sunday school, sing in the choir, and volunteer for other ministries. Additionally, the mainline Protestant traditions (mainly Presbyterian and Episcopal) and Jewish traditions have stepped up in support of the ordinance (http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local/article/Pastors-gather-to-endorse-city-s-4783991.php).

    In fact the statement below was released by the Episcopal Church of Reconciliation here in San Antonio which explains beautifully what organized religion is supposed to be when done well:

    To our fellow citizens of San Antonio, Mayor Castro and our City Council,

    We, as members and leaders of the Church of Reconciliation, urge our City Council and all our fellow citizens to support the purpose and intent of the proposed NonDiscrimination

    As a faith community in the Episcopal tradition, we have promised in our Baptismal Covenant:

    • To “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves”,

    • To “strive for justice and peace among all people” and

    • To “respect the dignity of every human being.”

    These principles and our promises to live them out in the world underlie our core value and policy of “radical inclusion,” welcoming all into our community, regardless of race, ethnicity, faith tradition, disabilities, mental health or addiction challenges, political affiliation, age, socioeconomic status, military service, gender, or sexual orientation. Of course, as “works in progress”, we often fail to keep these promises, but together we commit to confess our failures and to strive to grow into these core Biblical principles.

    As a community of radical inclusion, seeking to love our neighbors, striving for peace and justice, and trying to respect the dignity of every human being, we feel compelled to support the proposed ordinance prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and veteran status. Discrimination is inherently unjust and unloving, and it necessarily excludes and disrespects—everything we have promised to stand against.

    We recognize that these are very difficult issues. Because many of us grew up in a time when cultures, communities and churches often condemned and were often uninformed about homosexuality, we tend to have ingrained opinions, attitudes and assumptions that may need to be challenged and perhaps re-formed. The same was true about our opinions, attitudes and assumptions concerning race 50 years ago when our schools and churches were mostly segregated and discrimination on the basis of race was legal and rampant. We believe the proposed non-discrimination ordinance is a good step in the right direction, calling us as citizens and as community to a higher and more just standard. And so we stand in support of the purpose and intent of the ordinance.

    This does not mean, however, that we stand against those who oppose the ordinance. To the contrary, we believe it is critical that we stand together with our fellow Christians and fellow citizens to encourage open dialogue and cooperation.

    We respect and do not condemn the opinions of those who are against the ordinance, and agree that they should be allowed to express their opinions and positions, without being castigated or demonized by those who disagree with them. And we urge those who oppose the ordinance, as they express their opinions and positions, to do so in a loving manner, refraining from castigating or demonizing the GLBT community and those who support them.

    We hope and pray our conversations about this and similar issues and the implementation of this and similar ordinances will help make San Antonio a more compassionate city.

    Rev. Robert Woody Rector (Pastor)
    Members of Reconciliation Vestry (Church Council)
    Members of Church of Reconciliation

  3. Thank you, Robert, for having the courage and compassion to provide the details of your personal history with prejudice. Not everyone could be so bravely clear-eyed to openly depict their own prejudice and that of a parent. I wish all the NDO opponents would read Robert’s article, not to necessarily change their position but to perhaps put a little crack in their own hard shells of fear and rigid religious belief. I am listening to the live audio feed from City Hall now (11:30 am Thurs) before the vote. The statements by some of the NDO opponents are jarring — accusations of disease transmission, average age of death of lesbians is 45 (?!?!), bad bathroom behavior, that sexual affectional orientation is a choice, threats of lawsuits, political threats to Mayor Castro, Bernal and any councilmember who votes for the NDO, etc. etc. etc. I wonder if any of the other 11 Texas cities that have passed LGBT NDO ordinances had similar parades of hatred, fear, and misinformation from opponents. Have any of the officials in those 11 cities who voted for their city’s NDO suffered negative political support for that vote, as our councilfolks are being threatened with today.

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful post, and for sharing your personal history and evolution. We are like minded. I’m grateful you have written about it so eloquently. I trust you won’t mind if I share.

  5. Excellent post, Bob……very thoughtful and thought provoking.

    I appreciate so much hearing your personal revelations–and also what conclusions you drew from them, early in your life.

    And, I agree that we all have a story that touches on prejudice in our lives, even though we may not see the value (nor the truth) of it until much later.

    Thank you from Sheila

  6. Great article Bob. Sad that it was even a fight but it did bring much needed attention to the issue of equality that San Antonio, like many places in the country, is not as progressive as they think they are.

  7. As a Christian, I took a vow in my baptismal covenant, to “respect the dignity of every human being.” I revisit that covenant several times a year. If I were on the City Council, you can bet my vote would be yes.

    • As one of the “disgusting” (according to E. Chan) citizens of SA, I want to thank you, Patsy, for your statement. I wish you WERE on the City Council — in the chair of one of the three no-voters. Please, Patsy — and I’m serious — I urge you to relay your sentiment directly to Soules, Chan and Taylor, who relied on their understanding of Christianity to vote no to the ordinance. So much distortion and fear was dispensed in the name of “religion” and “free speech” (neither of which freedoms are affected by the ordinance), by the opposition to the ordinance that some clear Christian-based reflection is definitely called for. If I weren’t a happy District 1 resident, I’d write you in for council member at the next election. (You know what I mean….)

  8. Well stated.

    The most disappointing vote was from Ivy Taylor, who is someone that I’ve admired as a council member.
    I live in District 1 and Mr. Bernal has my support.

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