I don’t think I saw a person of color before I was five or six when we went down South to visit my mother’s relatives for the first time. In the modern world that’s a surprising thought. After all, I grew up in Maine, wouldn’t you think that there would have been at least SOME Native Americans? We (European-Americans) certainly took over the available space, didn’t we?
I remember my grandmother, who’d grown up in Tennessee, explaining to us that “darkies” were just naturally lazy. They would never work as hard as a white boy. She spoke from an experience I never had, so I simply accepted it. By the time I reached my teens I’d learned enough history to recognize that simple logic refuted her assumption. Anyone being treated unfairly, being asked to do the worst jobs for less pay would not be motivated to exert themselves. Yet somehow in their minds when they saw exceptions of colored men and women working hard when there was a reason to do so, they twisted it around in their heads so that the assumption remained untouched. I have to wonder what she was told when she was young that led her to interpret what she saw the way she did, and why she never saw past her conditioning. Perhaps I wouldn’t have done so had I lived in an area where the prejudice was constantly reinforced from all sides.
When we say something has “poisoned someone’s mind”, we often don’t think about what we mean by poison. Poison is something that when taken into the body can make it sick or even kill. We think of dramatic situations like slipping rat-poison into the food of someone you want to murder, or taking an overdose of sleeping pills to commit suicide. We forget the gradual poisons like sugar and tobacco we us to commit slow suicide by diabetes or cancer. We are more likely to remember that the difference between a medicine and a poison is the dose when convincing ourselves that a small amount of sugar in the food tempting us isn’t enough to hurt us (especially when we are reassured by advertising that everything on the market MUST be safe). Like the person dashing through traffic, we assure ourselves that “we haven’t been hit yet”.
My mother told me once of a friend who said “I’m never affected by Poison Ivy” and rubbed it all over herself to prove it- and got a terrible case. I used to brag that Aspartame didn’t effect me- until it did. There are many poisons that don’t have any apparent effect until they hit their loading dose and the symptoms show up. I think that may be true of poisons of the mind as well. You can ignore the foolish statements, the tacky jokes, the crass remarks of those around you for so long, then one day you hear yourself making one of those jokes. But it’s OK, you don’t really disrespect “those people”, you just know that your co-workers like jokes like that. But then one day you realize that you’ve gotten into the habit of using language you used to avoid. There are two major options, you can try to go cold turkey or you can convince yourself that it’s fine, everyone else has the same problems. Go ahead, drink the Kool-aid, everyone else is.
I hate leaving a post on a depressing note. But the only hope I can offer is that sometimes people do stop, sometimes they change course. That’s something we all can do. Sometimes the poison hasn’t gotten so bad that we can’t come back. Humans are really good at healing. Sometimes we just need to recognize what’s making us sick.