This Thanksgiving break I was dropping a friend off at Newark International Airport. On my way home the GPS directed me into the heart of Newark for a streetlight filled 45-minute ride home. I found myself stopped at a light when two middle aged men walked past my car. One was a Caucasian and the other African American. Without thinking, I immediately hit the lock button on my car. I stared at the light and when it turned green I zoomed off in the direction of my safe suburban town. Reflecting back on this experience, I find it to be very interesting and telling. Why did I lock my doors? Was it because I was in Newark? Was it because I was a women alone in a car? Was it because of the two men outside? Was it a combination? Would I have done the same thing if I was in my town?
In a public setting I would consider myself a pretty accepting and unbiased individual. However in this private experience I acted in the opposite manner. Part of my reaction was most likely based on the fact I was in the heart of Newark, which statistically is not the safest place. Newark is also home to many lower income individuals, and a melting pot of ethnicities and nationalities. Therefore my knowledge of social class may have impacted my action. Another dimension was the fact that I was a woman by myself and there were two men outside my car. Had it been an older women walking past my car I am not sure I would have reacted the same way. Does this mean I think women are weak and all men are bad? No. But my action clearly showed some concern to gender. It’s hard to admit, but my actions were based on some engrained preconception and bias about identity.
In today’s public setting individuals are very conscious of being “politically correct.” No one wants to offend any other identity and we make sure to avoid any topic or comment that might make us look ignorant or offensive. Is this good? I am not sure it is. I believe there is a problem when people avoid these conversations in order to skirt the issue. The reason progress was made in this country was due to the fact questions were asked and awareness grew. Conversations were started and more acceptance and learning followed. Just because we are publicly politically correct does not mean the issue is solved. There is still “isms”, stereotypes and biases in society, albeit they may be more hidden and private than before. We cannot assume that there is no longer an issue; we must continue the conservation. Even if we believe progress has been made, there is always a new wrinkle to identity. First it was class, next race, and then gender. Today I argue it is sexuality. Identity is complex and the only way to educate and build acceptance is to start a conversation. This is the only way to learn.