Genetically, we are the products of our parents. Socially, we are the products of our culture. Intellectually, we are products of both.
No American is born sexist, racist or homophobic. We learn these attitudes. Who teaches these attitudes? The culture around us — specifically, our family, our neighborhood, our schools and the media.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, television was the biggest thing since radio. I learned that men were action-oriented — the “stars” of the show — while women and girls played supporting roles and simply reacted to whatever men were doing.
I saw that men and boys played football and baseball and basketball and hockey, while women and girls played with dolls or “dress-up” or “house.” I saw that men ruled the household, while women “served” the household — as in “Father Knows Best” or “Ozzie and Harriet.”
I saw that men gave orders and expected to be obeyed, while women took orders and obeyed. Men and boys fought, cursed, got dirty; women and girls acted “dainty” and were always clean, quiet and well-mannered.
I learned from the priests in church that Eve — the first woman in the world — was seduced by the devil and that poor Adam fell under her evil spell, and because of Eve the whole of humankind suffers from sin, sickness and death. I learned about Jesus and God the Father, while Mary was a mother and a “virgin,” not a goddess, and that she was impregnated through something called the “Immaculate Conception.”
Even today the majority of TV programs or movies feature men in leading roles, while women and girls play supporting roles. “Superheroes” and “action stars” are mostly men. Women are mothers, wives or girlfriends.
The same is true with racism. I never saw a black person while growing up. My neighborhood was all-white, my school was all-white and so was the church we attended. The only Africans I saw were Amos and Andy, and they were funny characters — sort of bumbling, lazy and foolish.
I learned in school history that Africans were slaves for over two hundred years, and slaves were property, like animals — good only for working the fields. I learned the word “nigger” before I even knew what the word meant. I had heard it from my parents and the kids in the neighborhood, and because of the context in which “nigger” was used, I knew it was a bad thing.
The first time I saw a black person in the flesh I was immediately fascinated with the onus and stigma of “slavery” — as if the shame and disgrace of this history was somehow owned by the entire African race. Also, the difference in physical characteristics — particularly color — conjured up exotic and disturbing images, and I knew we had absolutely nothing in common.
Homophobia is no different. I heard my daddy remark occasionally that someone was “as queer as a three dollar bill.” This phrase carried a negative connotation, but it wasn’t until years later that I learned “queer” referred to a special class of people — people who practiced “forbidden” and “dirty” sexual preferences.
“Queers” were perhaps the strangest characters in my early experience. Such people never appeared in the media and were never evident at school or in the neighborhood. However, I was assured by my parents and friends that such people did exist, but because their perversions were so “sinful” and “unnatural” they tended to remain secret and hidden.
American culture is still “teaching” these attitudes to its children through a process of “cultural infusion.” And we will continue to suffer the destructive and divisive consequences until we — the adult population — own up to the stupidity and cruelness of our prejudices.
We are all captives and victims of these twisted attitudes. However, what we learn, we can unlearn. And we must start unlearning now, especially with our children, before we create another generation of hate and cruelty.