Lessons in Prejudice (Parts One and Two) by Janet Asimov
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With thoughtful criticism and a sharp wit, Dr. Janet Asimov reflects on her life experiences dealing with prejudice in many forms.
These “lessons” are my highly personal takes on prejudice.
Each is not a comprehensive review or commentary. Much as I try, I do not feel qualified to say I really belong to the ranks of people who write about prejudice eloquently, in depth, and with personal knowledge; committed to educating the rest of humanity about the prejudices which all too many Homo sap pretend are not real. Or, sadly, too advantageous to give up.
I have, therefore, selected only a few of the many varieties of prejudice, and I am illustrating these with very homely personal anecdotes which are bound to elicit scorn from people who have suffered from much more severe prejudice. I just want to mention some. You can add your own.
I am well aware that I have not had a single relative shoved into a gas oven, or known that doors were closed against the color of my skin. My anecdotes are mundane, but because they are personal, they might at least lead you to think about what you yourself have observed about the way our benighted world seems doomed to cling to prejudice, including its more subtle manifestations.
Prejudice indeed comes in many horrible or not so horrible varieties. One of the many more subtle kinds I am skimming over is the prejudice engendered by false first impressions. This one nearly caused me to miss out on the love of my life, so I’m saving it for the end.
I am also more or less leaving out the very important prejudices against various religions. I’m too guilty of that one myself.
I mutter against religion in general and religion in particular, although I try not to do it around friends who are still ardent believers in the more antiquated aspects of religion that features the supernatural. And yes, there are some good aspects, but any glance at world history past and present does not encourage me to forgive religion its sins.
As an example of my personal prejudice against religion, I confess that I am fond of telling about the experiences of my brother’s children, during his years of residency training in Utah (where, of course, he no longer lives).
Not being Mormons, my brother’s children suffered prejudice in grade school from teachers, other students and their parents. This in spite of the fact that at the time my very little niece and nephew were blonde, blue-eyed, and their last name was the same as that of zillions of others in Utah.
You see, my grandparents had lots of children. One of my great-grandfathers had even more, since he had two wives. And all those children seem to have had zillions of children, most of them raised to believe stuff I think is ridiculous.
My parents left Utah, had only two children and did not raise us to be Mormon. I don’t visit Utah anymore—after all, I’m a devout New Yorker; I can’t allow myself to get far from the American Museum of Natural History, and the Utah altitude (all kinds) is bad for my aged heart.
I will now take a deep breath, fingers poised over the computer keys, glad that my parents insisted that I learn to touch type, something which, I gather, will engender prejudice in generations to come. To come? I think they are already here. These new generations, while scorning me and my keyboard, will talk out loud to computers if they don’t feel like using their thumbs on those itty-bitty doo-hickeys. I hope they all get hoarse or have carpal tunnel syndrome if not aching thumbs. If I sound prejudiced, I am.
Lessons in Prejudice, Part One (Race):
I’m starting with race prejudice which is, I hope, not forever, although it must seem that way to many people who still suffer from it, in spite of the gains in civil rights and the fact that we have a black president.
I always feel like putting quotation marks around “race” because—surely you know this—there is only one human race. It’s called, egotistically enough, Homo sapiens sapiens. Yes, the official name used to have two of those sapiens, meaning “wise.” It’s not only egotistical but delusional. I think the doubling of “sapiens” is not much used any more.
It would be lovely if a live Neanderthal could be produced, now that we know their genome. As somebody of North European descent, my own genome is probably two to four percent Neanderthal, which gives me a certain prejudice in their favor.
Neanderthals used to be known scientifically as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, but I see that the “sapiens” has been dropped. On behalf of my ancestors, I object. And can’t you imagine a future in which there are separate toilets for Neanderthals, separate seats on the bus, prohibitions on intermarriage? Perhaps we should concentrate on resurrecting woolly mammoths instead.
The following personal anecdote on race prejudice is not supposed to have deep meaning, although it does, for me.
In 1954, my colleague Ann and I were on our spring vacation from our jobs as psychiatric residents at Bellevue Hospital. We had decided to travel by car to the south because it was supposed to be warmer than New York City, only it wasn’t. I remember a very cold spring, but perhaps the chill of the memory is due to what happened later.
We had not made advance reservations and had trouble finding places to stay because very little was open. We also could not afford to go to a regular hotel or motel that might have provided shelter.
Finally, in a seaside town in one of the Carolinas (I have mercifully forgotten which one), we found a boarding house that agreed to take us in for a week. A friendly young couple ran the place. The two permanent boarders were a young dentist and a young business man, both unmarried and about our age (still in our twenties). The two men seemed to be avidly in search of mates, so Ann and I had dates with them.
It was all very pleasant until a certain day when Ann and I came to dinner—we ate with everyone else, at one big table—to find that the white owners of the boarding house plus the two white permanent boarders were furiously talking about the Supreme Court decision on the desegregation of schools.
“I won’t get married and have children!” yelled the dentist, and the other guy agreed.
“Our children will suffer!” said the owners, who had at least one child, but I can’t remember how many or how old.
Ann and I sat and watched while the other four whites in the room went on ranting and raving, all the while the quiet African-American server provided us dinner.
I can’t remember if we visitors said anything, and I can’t ask Ann because she’s been dead for 30 years. I do distinctly remember being frightened—for us and for the server.
Afterwards, Ann and I went to our room and packed.
Lessons in Prejudice Part Two (Gender):
Gender prejudice seems to have diminished somewhat. Why, we American women even got the vote! In 1920! Of course, Finland had universal suffrage in 1906 and Sweden’s tax-paying women did back in the eighteenth century, but you can look up “suffrage” in Wikipedia as well as I can.
In spite of the changes, including the fact that many of the medical students these days are women (and some of the lawyers and astronauts!), I fear that with overpopulation and economic problems, the improvement trend in gender prejudice is unlikely to continue, unless females everywhere insist on reproductive rights to go with and make possible other civil rights about gender.
Any reasonably well-informed person in our so-called enlightened country ought to know that the situation for women is dire in many parts of the world, especially if they stay alive long enough to be baby factories. Every day we hear about killing and torture of women, or at least such severe repression that many of the world’s women cannot read or write, much less have any kind of minimal equality with men.
My experience with gender prejudice is not as unpleasant as that of many women (to say nothing of the problems gays and lesbians have faced), so forgive me if I tell my little sad stories.
In college, I took pre-med courses in addition to those required for my major in biology (I also sneaked in as many liberal arts courses as I could, which isn’t easy when one is in a lab every afternoon). Lots of people (fortunately not my parents, who were paying) thought I was crazy.
When I applied for college it was wartime and no one knew how long the war would last (the atom bomb was a secret). So many women were working at jobs previously held by service men that I thought it was logical to prepare for a world of work in those jobs.
Although I knew how to touch type and use shorthand (taken in high school summer courses) I also knew that I did not want to be a secretary, or to work at most of the other jobs women were allowed to have before the war. This is one of the reasons why, on the Wellesley college admission questionnaire, I checked the little box that asked, “Are you a pre-med?”
During my sophomore year at Wellesley, loving zoology and struggling with the now extinct courses of qualitative and quantitative analysis in chemistry (all done by computers now), I had a medical student boyfriend for a short time. I did not tell him I wanted to go to med school myself. I already knew a good deal about gender prejudice.
One day said boyfriend got around to asking me what courses I was taking. I told him.
He said, “You’re not a pre-med, are you?”
Then I transferred to Stanford University. Not because of him, but because the war was over and I was able to accept the admission to Stanford I’d had 2 years before, during the war when travel from New York to California was very difficult.
At Stanford, I was treated well in my science courses, but was soon warned that I’d have trouble getting into medical school with all the vets applying. Three posh medical schools told me that their quotas on women were already filled.
I thought then, and now, that veterans deserved to be the first choice, but I don’t think women deserved to be put on quota lists, behind the non-veteran men, and to be told that they should stay home as homemakers for all the men.
NYU Medical School accepted me. They did not seem to have a quota on women. So I became a doctor, enjoying the training and the work. I soon noticed that many of my female friends who had given into the prejudices of the feminine mystique were now divorced.
As I (and Isaac, before me) keep trying to drum into people’s heads, prejudice against women is ruining Earth’s future. Women who have nothing else to do, or are permitted to do nothing else, are the humans who have the babies, and babies have more babies.
In my own lifetime, the population of Earth has tripled. Why doesn’t this scare more people who, presumably, are affected by human-induced climate change, pollution, and violence? Don’t they know how many people are desperate, deprived of clean water, food, shelter, and peace?
All too many of these idiots who don’t agree that Earth is in danger seem to be assuming that some supernatural deity will take care of everything. And do they really believe that there will be a very revengeful end during which the faithful will ascend to whatever heaven each of them imagines?
Don’t answer that.
Dr. Janet Asimov is a writer and psychiatrist in New York. She was married to the science fiction author and past American Humanist Association president Isaac Asimov.
Don’t miss the September 18th issue of Humanist Network News which will feature Part 3 of Dr. Janet Asimov’s “Lessons in Prejudice” series.