Separating Racial Prejudice from Preference

Me prejudiced? No, I just have preferences — lots of them!

That’s what we women say to ourselves every time we brush off someone with skin that’s lighter or darker than ours. I should know. When I’m in an especially high-minded mood, I will dance with anyone with legs just to show what a star-spangled all-American female I am. When I’m in a more reality-based frame of mind, I don’t want to be bothered with guys for whom I feel no attraction.

This issue has to be sorted out in each of our minds. Asian Americans are members of a racial minority that is seen as dishing out prejudice as much as being victimized by it. We Asian Americans do have our prejudices. To say otherwise would be dishonest. Just to get the ball rolling, let me blurt out a few of my own.

Whites are polite to everyone but harbor many odd notions about the lifestyles and thought processes of minorities that can’t even be imagined by those of us who have never lived as part of a very smug, insulated majority. Their ideas can’t be shaken by mere Asian Americans in the flesh because they were apparently acquired from reliable action movies, TV shows and comic books created by reliable white folks.

African Americans are slick talkers who win people over with enthusiasm in the beginning but seem to lose interest in keeping their commitments over time. Latinos are in-your-face, often vulgar, but soft-hearted. Middle-Easterners are suave and put on a very stylish show but harbor some very old-fashioned sexist ideas. Asians? We are eager to fit in but are full of prejudices about all the other races and every Asian nationality under the sun! But unlike whites, our prejudices are based on our actual observations — or at least the observations of our parents and friends. Smiley face.

So it’s cool to have prejudices, in my book, as long as we are conscious of them and are open minded enough to give each person a chance to show just how wrong — or right — those prejudices are. That’s the key. As a matter of fact, conferring that benefit of the doubt on every one of our fellow human beings may be the only way to be as unprejudiced as is humanly possible.

Where prejudices become dangerous is when we tell ourselves that they are just preferences and don’t give a second thought to just mentally brushing someone off based on their race or nationality. When you think about it, every single prejudice can be called a preference. I just have a preference for guys who look like me except taller, more muscular and better at dealing with insects. I just have a preference for people who eat rice with chopsticks. Or can total up several three-digit prices in their heads, then calculate the local tax on them. Or people who eat spicy foods. Or people who are natural salsa dancers (no such thing, of course).

Of course we all have preferences arising from the different experiences we had growing up. Those early experiences — many of them pre-verbal — taught us to like and dislike certain kinds of people, places and things. There’s nothing offensive or objectionable about that. Ultimately I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with even having a clear preference for the kind of person you want to date or marry because that’s a decision that has to satisfy a part of you that’s so deep that it can’t be separated from who you are.

But the line between bad prejudice and acceptable preference is drawn during those first minute or two when you meet someone. If I look that person in the eyes, hear what they have to say and observe how they say it, and let myself forget my prejudices pertaining to his or her race or origins, I am comfortable with whatever decision I may make about the role that person can play in my life.

By the same token, I have also learned to accept that that amount of consideration is about all I can expect from others. Do I get that from everyone I meet? Of course not. That’s when we’re entitled to raise a hullaballoo about racism.

In the end what matters most is whether I can say that I give at least that much consideration to everyone I meet. It isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth the effort.