It wasn't just racism either. It was a deep-seated fear and distrust of anyone who fit into that huge box marked 'other'. Hippies were another huge bugaboo.
What I observed was fascinating. Because they had friends, neighbors, acquaintances, and later family members who fell into groups that inhabited that box. But the dissonance was solved by making exceptions. And it is a pattern I have seen my whole life when exposed to people who have internalized stereotypes for those they see as 'other'.
"Well my friend Bill is black, but he is different because he...
...has a good job and works hard."
...is from here and talks like educated people."
...has a white parent so he isn't REALLY black."
...isn't, you know, URBAN."
...wears khakis and oxford shirts."
...has a degree and owns his home."
...is married and his kids go to school with my kids."
"My sister is on disability but she is REALLY sick and isn't just faking it so she doesn't have to work. I mean, she has diseases x, y and z. And the doctors even say it is so much worse with her than anyone they have seen before."
"Bob's son is schizophrenic and living in the park right now. It is absolutely criminal the way all that money is spent on lazy homeless people who won't work when there are people who really NEED help and can't get it!"
"She is a woman but she is REALLY good. Thinks just like a man!"
"Maria from work is different because she...
...is Mexican but she was BORN here.
...isn't Mexican, she is from Central America. Or South America...anyway.
...was born in Mexico but she is actually here legally.
...speaks perfect English. You can't even tell she is Mexican!
...is from Mexico or South America somewhere down there. But she has green eyes and blonde hair! She doesn't look Mexican at all.
...is Mexican but she only has one kid. And her husband is Mexican and he has a really good job too.
"My daughter's friend is Native American. But he doesn't drink alcohol at all."
You have heard it. You have probably said something like it about someone, somewhere sometime. You have definitely done it about yourself. We do it to rationalize our own behaviour all the time.
The reverse of this is inclusiveness. The realization that if this is happening to me or mine, friends and family, acquaintances, people I know...then it is may very well apply to others in the same boat.
We see it when the vocal opponent of marriage rights does an about-face when their child comes out as gay. Or the person who never had an interest in social activism becomes radicalized by the personal experience of someone close to them, or a personal issue.
Being aware of things like confirmation bias is very helpful here too. Realize that we will always file away the rare validation of or our prejudices, even in the face of a really impressive amount of evidence to the contrary.
This line of thought can also be applied to those of us reeling from the recent elections. Statistically, a lot of us know people who voted for the winning side. And we made exceptions for them, rather than considering they might represent a much larger group. Because they did not fit our stereotype.
I'll leave you with some photos of kids on Spring Break: