By THOR JOURGENSEN
I grew up in Central Wyoming in the 1960s and, later, in suburban Colorado in the 1970s. I heard and read the word, “Chicano,” as a boy but never met an actual person of that description. I had at most 10 conversations with the few African Americans who lived in my town. I was surprised to learn years after knowing him that the book dealer I enjoyed visiting and talking with was gay.
My late father used the word “jigaboo” to describe African Americans. The few Mexicans I saw in Colorado were migrants who picked beets and lived in cellar houses out in the fields. My dad liked to affect an exaggerated accent and jokingly suggest his mother’s maiden name of Goldtrap indicated Jewish ancestry.
If you called me a bigot I probably couldn’t mount a strong argument to refute the accusation. The prejudices and biases of my youth remain a constant background to the perspectives and experiences that have shaped my adult perceptions of people who are different from me.
I have no hesitation speaking to an African American but I am wary driving through a predominantly African-American neighborhood. I know LGBT community members, but I admit to viewing them often as people living in a different world than my own.
This deliberate distancing of myself from others who are different makes me a hypocrite, and by definition, a bigot. I could excuse my bigotry as a product of my upbringing, geographic background and age. But I also must challenge myself to question sincerely how often I work to overcome personal bias and dump my ingrained thinking for a new perspective.
I walked into the home of the late Virginia Barton one afternoon to interview her and stood dumbfounded and stared at the “colored waiting room” sign hanging on one of the walls inside her home. For a few seconds, I realized that the America I love and call my home shunned and divided its citizens until a time period that coincided with my childhood.
Looking at that sign, I tried to imagine what it felt like to have one’s freedom abridged by it and by similar signs, laws and prejudices. Then I remembered how the late Ed Battle of Lynn told me how he was jailed in Mississippi while serving in the Air Force and returned to the state to fight for voter rights.
If I have enough courage to confront my own bigotry and bias, I will begin to pay the slightest tribute to people like Barton and Battle who confronted a nation’s biases.
Thor Jourgensen is News Editor at The Item. He can be reached at email@example.com.