Prejudge. Prejudice. Are the two words like first cousins? I'm reminded of an incident to use as an illustration.
Many years ago, when I lived in Los Angeles, Sunday afternoons were dedicated to free time, getting into my car and exploring some of the many things to do in that megalopolis of a city.
There were plenty of choices. One of my favorite spots to enjoy a sunny, Sunday afternoon was the city of Pasadena, just north of downtown Los Angeles.
Home of the Rose Bowl, Pasadena's historic downtown was filled with unique shops and restaurants.
I'd park the car, feed the parking meter, then spend the afternoon exploring this charming city on foot.
One Sunday, I found myself on a street that wasn't dotted with many pedestrians. In fact, I was on the street all by myself.
That is, until I turned a corner and found myself approaching a nicely dressed white woman who looked to be in her late 40s.
At the time, I would have been in my early 30s. Less than a block apart, we were walking directly toward each other.
But as soon as she spotted me, the woman immediately hurried across the street. I can still hear the sound her heels made clicking in my head, as she hurried across the street. To avoid a direct encounter with me?
I didn't know quite how to take what had just happened but I admit, me being the sensitive type, I was a bit taken aback. (I'm also too analytical for my own good).
My first take was, after spotting this 6'3" black guy walking toward her, the woman assumed there was some risk involved.
Did she think I had a gun?
Did she imagine I might attempt to snatch her purse? Or was it simply time for her to cross the street? (I doubt it.)
Certainly, I could never know what was on her mind, but now you know what was on mine.
Hey, I can't blame a woman or man for being extra careful in unfamiliar surroundings, or in what they may perceive to be a threatening situation. That would be plain common sense.
But truth be told, the only thing to "fear" from me is a friendly, "Hello, how are you doing today." I'm the guy who would come to the lady's defense, if she did indeed found herself in a dangerous situation.
This woman may not have been prejudiced.
She may have reacted the same way had I been a white guy, Hispanic man, Asian or, oh...you get the idea. We sometimes prejudge people, based on their appearance and/or our own preconceived notions. And yes, that includes me, sometimes being guilty of the same.
Last Christmas, while visiting Los Angeles, I found myself using public transportation to get to my friend's apartment.
Not sure about the Los Angeles Metro system, I asked a woman waiting at the bus stop which line would take me to the street I needed. I'd barely finished asking my question before she quickly responded, "I don't speak English." Oh, my! (Sorry, lady.)
I figured she was using that line only to avoid further engaging in conversation with the stranger black guy. (There I go again, with the over-analyzing thing.)
After the bus arrived, she was the last passenger to board and I'd already taken my seat.
Sitting near the front of the bus, I watched as she boarded. I was still at least slightly perturbed as I watched, her unfriendliness still replaying in my head.
As she attempted to pay her fare, though, I noticed the bus driver saying something to her. She seemed confused and finally said to the driver, "I don't speak English."
Uh-oh! I guess she really didn't speak English.
Now I had to ask myself, had I prejudged this woman? Was I as guilty as the middle-aged lady from Pasadena? The one I assumed was prejudging me?
The experience made me rethink some of my own assumptions about the people I meet.
Sure, I get upset when people seem to prejudge me based on my appearance. But I'm honest enough to admit, I can be guilty of the same.
One of the things I miss about Los Angeles is the city's diversity. Name any country on the planet, some of which I've never even heard of, and chances are I've met someone from that country, thanks to living in L.A. I count it as good fortune, having met entire families from a wide range of races and nationalities.
Along the way, I've discovered that the more we meet, interact with and get to know each other, the clearer it becomes we're much more alike than we are different.
We often share the same hopes and dreams, no matter our skin color or nationality.
Of course, we share many of the same fears, too. But that shouldn't include fearing each other based on racial stereotypes, built-in prejudices or prejudging people before we get a chance to know them.
I'll admit, when it comes to race relations, I've forever been a bit of a Pollyanna.
Since I was a kid, I've always assumed race relations would only get better, as the human race evolved and moved into the future.
Back then, my focus was on black/white race relations, a result of the times and the Hattiesburg I grew up in.
Since then, America has changed a lot and, as has the rest of the country, Hattiesburg has grown a lot more diverse, too.
Prejudice is an ugly thing. To me, it's one of the most offensive sins. But as a force of human nature, sadly, the beast known as prejudice will most likely always be with us.
It's not built into our DNA though. Prejudice and the hate that often accompanies it is passed from one generation to the next.
I'll say again, physical appearances aside, we're really not that different from each other.
Before learning their native language, the sounds and attempts at speech made by infants are the same, no matter where their parents come from.
Their new language is learned from their parents and, I'm sorry to say, some of their prejudices are learned, if not taught, by their parents, too.
The Pollyanna who lives in me still believes we can all get along. But to get there, we'll have to be more careful with how we prejudge the people we meet every day.
Take the time getting to know someone who doesn't look like you.
You could end up making a very special, lifelong friend when you do.
Hello. How are you doing today?
Elijah Jones is a writer and a proud graduate of the Hattiesburg Public School System and the Univrersity of Southern Mississippi. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.