Lkboehm's Blog

Urban History Blog

Bystander to Prejudice December 6, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — lkboehm @ 1:49 pm

What to do when one overhears a prejudiced comment, here or there?

At our university, we are imploring students to speak up and say someting when they encounter physical or sexual violence.  I think we need to expand our discussion of the importance of being a proactive bystander to racial and ethnic prejudice, as well as violence.  I teach a course on public policy and cultural diversity, where I try to demonstrate that a community which says nothing in the face of prejudiced attitudes often sets itself up for prejudiced acts which go beyond words.

The problem with speaking up when one is a bystander to racial or ethnic prejudices is that we are often a witness to our family members’ or friends’ bad attitudes, and if we speak up we feel we are risking important friendships.  It can be hard to tell off a beloved old grandfather when he makes a comment that is anti-gay, for instance.  But it is with our loved ones that we have the most sway. By speaking up we might actually be able to see the error in their comment or thinking.  At the very least, they will see that their comments are at odds with the way that trusted loved ones or friends think, and they might start to examine the origins of their utterance.

This morning, I pulled out the ipad to read as I slowly came to.  It was a Tuesday, and I really wanted to curl up and go back to bed, rather than head to the office and grade 20 page senior capstone papers.  So one of my favorite graduates, a sweet woman I will call “Jill,” had posted that she was waiting for the latest installment of her favorite show from Netflix, but she was getting impatient.  Another of her friends, and not a friend of mine, replied that she should not “be a Jew,” and that she should just buy the series DVDs.  So I responded, in my morning haze, “Not cool, “Tom”.  This is a fairly public place, you know.  I am one of Jill’s Jewish friends, and this was the first thing I saw this morning.”

While I don’t want to be the Facebook police, I think that free speech, or so called free speech conducted via the filter of an on-line social networking site like Facebook, should also allow for response to prejudice.  Too often we think that free speech means that people get to say whatever they want, and it stops there.  But free speech also means that we get to fully respond to things we do not agree with.  In fact, it should be our responsibility to do so, even when it is uncomfortable.  I am sorry Tom, for calling you out so early in the morning, but that seems to be what a responsible person should do.  I have seen three references to “Jew” written by non-Jews in the past few days on Facebook.  When times are difficult economically, we often turn to prejudice and blaming the Jews for economic issues.  There is even an element of anti-Semitic rhetoric, subtle and not so subtle, to our recent “Occupy” movements.  I think it is important to discuss what might be a growing turn towards prejudicial language, used perhaps as a palliative to ease troubled souls.

My other way of c0mbatting deep seated anti-Semitism is to go out and over tip and spend too much on my credit cards, just in case I can dislodge the connection between Jews and thrift in anyone’s mind. . .