Prejudice?

Prejudice?

What is prejudice? Even for such an emotionally charged word, I believe the answer is more complex then we may suppose.

In 1973, I began my Connecticut public service career as a Correctional Supervisor at the Cheshire Reformatory, a secure institution for young men aged sixteen to twenty-one. I worked there until 1976, and met Art toward the end of my tenure. Typical of most penal institutions, the percentage of blacks in the population was over-represented. Coming from Jamaica, Art was lighter skinned then many of the African-Americans at Cheshire. He was also not an inmate. He was a counselor.

My role as a Correctional Supervisor was managing the electronics crew in the maintenance department. I usually had about a half dozen inmates in my unit and I spent half of each day instructing them in electronics theory and the other half doing electrical and electronic maintenance around the facility. Lured by the long-term benefits of public sector employment, I took a pay cut when I left the private sector and made up the difference by doing electrical jobs after hours. That's how I met Art. He had a large home in a nearby town and hired me to make some electrical updates. Art was soft-spoken and likable. It didn't take long for us to become friends. My wife Judy and I were delighted when Art invited us to dinner. His wife was African-American and considerably darker skinned then him.

My sons especially liked the pond in the front of Art's property. They also enjoyed the company of his two daughters. Both sets of children were similar in age. Judy and I repaid the favor by inviting Art's family to our house in Southington. Once again, we had a great time together. While we were entertaining, one of my older brothers stopped at the house. He didn't say anything at the time, but afterwards cautioned me about the hazards of what I was doing. We debated for some time and he ended by saying, "What if one of your kids got involved with one of his? How would you feel if some day one of your sons came home and told you he wanted to marry a black girl?"

My brother's question caused me to wonder about its origin. I never recalled my father or mother saying anything negative about people of color. I eventually theorized that the question might have had something to do with our family's move from Pittston to New York. Pittston was a small coal-mining town in northeastern Pennsylvania. I was only six when we moved while my brother was well into his teens. In Pittston, race was not an issue because in the 1950's there were no blacks. In the East New York section of Brooklyn however, the population was a melting pot of every ethnicity and color. My older brothers and sisters were suddenly thrust into a world as foreign as if they had moved to another country.

I also had to learn the culture of our new environment, and sometimes that learning came too late. One particular incident occurred as I sat with two black friends on the front stoop of their home. Melvin and Jessie were brothers. As I recall, the topic of friendship came up and I proudly said that I had never had any nigger friends before. For that comment, they beat me and left me out on the sidewalk. I never visited their home again. For me, the incident left me more confused than angry. At the time, I could go to any candy store and buy small, dark, penny candies in the shape of little children. The candy's name was Nigger Babies.

As I look back on the conversation with my brother, I struggle more with my answer then his question. I insisted that I would not have a problem with either of my sons telling me that he wanted to marry a black girl. "Now," I finished, "if instead he told me he wanted to marry another man; that, I would have a problem with." When I made that statement, I meant it sincerely. Since then, our nation's sentiment regarding lesbians and gays had undergone a profound shift. Currently, the Supreme Court is considering overturning California's law prohibiting same-sex marriage. I count many gays and lesbians as my close friends. Most recently, I struggle emotionally and intellectually as my grandchild undergoes counseling and medical treatment to make the transition from granddaughter to grandson.

It seems to me that what we deem to be prejudice is often as much a matter of when as what.

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