Recently, I was interviewed about dog training and being a dog walker. During the talk, there was an intriguing comment made by the interviewer about German Shepherds. I’m not sure why this question had never come up in 22 years of me being a dog owner and one year as a dog caregiver, but she told me she used to be really scared of German Shepherds because of the Civil Rights Movement photographs she saw as a kid. I knew exactly which well-known photograph she was talking about. I could instantly picture the young, black man who was helplessly being attacked by one dog while two police officers were doing nothing to stop it from happening.
If that was my entire exposure to German Shepherds, I would also be terrified of them. The same can be said for pit bulls. I was not a fan. All I heard about was attacks. But the combination of reporting on anti-dog fighting events from the Carroll Care Center and meeting a pit bull named Emma Rose who jumped up and licked me on the lips made me reevaluate my own prejudices against that breed. It’s hard to be scared of a dog who is that unapologetically affectionate from the minute I opened the crate. From that point on, it would be impossible for me to say “All pit bulls are violent,” especially after seeing almost a dozen of them cuddle up to their owners like purse dogs.
In answer to her query, I told her I spent half my life enjoying the company of German Shepherds, even after reading enough black history lessons to know what these dogs were capable of. Additionally, my father and grandfather constantly showed me photographs of their German Shepherd pet before I was born. Exposure to both breeds gave me a far more balanced view of them. But if we flip this question on its heels and subtract two of those four legs, could exposure be all people need to have less dangerous views about each other? I believe so.
In one of four newsrooms I worked in for a few years, I always hated one particular photo gallery. It was an entire gallery of mugshots. I never understood the purpose of it, but it was the most successful clickbait on the entire site. Even over breaking news stories, feature stories and worldwide topics, that idiotic gallery was loyally viewed.
According to the NAACP, “Between 1980 and 2015, the number of people incarcerated in America increased from roughly 500,000 to over 2.2 million.” Additionally, African-Americans are five times as likely to be incarcerated as white people, and black women are twice as likely to be sent to jail than white women. So you can just about guess what the demographics were for this photo gallery. While it had its Liberal-leaning moments, the paper often proved to be more conservative during the time I worked there. And its readers too often salivated over the opportunity to point out in the comment section who was in the mugshots the most.
Considering I was raised in a family full of positive, educated, working black men who were considerate fathers and brothers and uncles and godfathers and grandfathers, this gallery was not my world of black men. I knew it existed. And there were definitely grown men and young boys in my neighborhood, and friends of my family members, who were no strangers to the inside of a jail cell. Still though, I’d been exposed to such a balance that I could fully understand that A + B /=/ C. But for people who only get their exposure to other groups via news images and photographs, this was the reality for them. They are force-fed these beliefs from the media, their own family members who support certain media and lack of real-life exposure to other groups.
I pondered on that mugshot gallery while thinking of her German Shepherd comment. If my only exposure to that breed was those photographs of dogs who were trained to be racist, it is a given that she would fear this breed as a whole. Why would she think otherwise? Let’s say that her only exposure to dogs was seeing images of them being violent, attacking and profiling. It would be inevitable that she would believe A + B = C. What else would she have to work with other than what’s been shown to her? Too often, news publications do not fully consider a balance in the content that they put so people have the opportunity to see people in various views. Sometimes it’s intentional. Other times it’s subconscious bias. What I’m saying is everybody needs to check their privilege.
Well-traveled does not always make you less racist
I often hear the motto that people who travel more tend to be less discriminatory and more open to other races. It sounds nice on postcards and travel sites, but I can think of a handful of painfully ignorant comments from well-traveled people. They got the plane tickets. But when they arrived at their destinations, they only wanted to hang out with people exactly like themselves — who maybe had a permanent tan.
I didn’t have the funds to travel around the world as a kid. I still don’t actually. But the best way I “traveled” as a child was having 50 pen pals from almost every continent. If they were on the Census, I met them. Australia was the only continent I never got a pen pal in, which apparently was still on my mind because my longest lasting client as an adult lives in Australia (although he’s stuck in New Zealand due to COVID-19 restrictions). Purposely exposing myself to people who look, sound and act nothing like me made me more conscious of my own biases. It also stopped me from making random generalizations about a group of people without a shred of proof, which pretty much sums up entirely too many social media posts that I see in a day.
If people want to actively check their own biases — and privileges — they have to actively confront them. Are you scared of a person or topic? Put yourself right in front of it. And instead of telling that fearful person/topic why (s)he needs to be more like your demographic, try taking the time to learn about one unlike yours.
Do you have pretty stubborn views on how [insert demographic] acts? OK, now think of how many people are of that demographic. Do you know all of them? Matter of fact, do you even personally know an eighth of them? No, right? Then chances are you couldn’t possibly tell anyone how “they” behave, walk, talk or think.
One of the most successful ways to learn what a person is like is to actually get to know that person. Get up from behind your computer screen and go talk to who or what scares you. You may find yourself wondering why you feared them at all.
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