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Posts Tagged ‘prejudice’

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© 2013 Eliza Murdock

FA LA LA
LA LA LA
LA LA LA

Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year
to all the straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, asexual, questioning,
brown, Asian, black, white, multi-ethnic,
middle-aged, teenaged, old, young,
religious, atheist, agnostic,
people out there!
Sing we joyous all together
Fa la la, la la la, la la la

Except the assholes.

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I was gonna write this whole wordy rant about this, but really, that’s all it comes down to.   I am not lacking.  My biology is not impaired.  My physiology is not dismembered.   I am not a deviation from the norm.  My vagina is not the lack of a dick.  It’s an organ in its own right.

My worth is not diminished.

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Why do some people think that acknowledging the suffering of others somehow diminishes their own?  That in order to validate their suffering, they must deny the suffering of others?

Was the African slave trade a blight on the face of humanity?  Was the African slave trade a horror that none of us can truly comprehend?   Is there anyone at all who will argue that the answer is anything but a most emphatic yes?

Since that is so, why isn’t the Irish slave trade similarly acknowledged as even existing, let alone acknowledged as that same blight, that same horror?  Why are the white slaves taken in Africa not likewise acknowledged as existing?

Why is acknowledging European slavery in Africa a threat to the memory of black slavery?

I’m not talking about racism, discrimination, civil rights issues.  I’m not talking about comparing the suffering as if one can be found to be more worthy of notice.

I’m talking about slavery.  Real slavery.

When the population of Ireland was cut by nearly two thirds within a single decade (1641 to 1652), with an estimated 300,000 Irish slaves shipped to the New World to work for English masters and another 500,000 killed outright, that is a reality of history.   They were every bit as much slaves as the Africans brought to the Americas.

During the 1650s, over 100,000 Irish children between the ages of 10 and 14 were taken from their parents and sold as slaves in the West Indies, Virginia and New England. In this decade, 52,000 Irish (mostly women and children) were sold to Barbados and Virginia. Another 30,000 Irish men and women were also transported and sold to the highest bidder. In 1656, Cromwell ordered that 2000 Irish children be taken to Jamaica and sold as slaves to English settlers.

And don’t kid yourself.  These were not indentured servants who labored for some years and then were set free.  They were slaves.  Every bit as much as the Africans were slaves.  They were slaves who were sent to the Americas to labor and die by the master’s hand, to be seen as property and chattel, not people.

In time, the English thought of a better way to use these [Irish] women (in many cases, girls as young as 12) to increase their market share: The settlers began to breed Irish women and girls with African men to produce slaves with a distinct complexion. These new “mulatto” slaves brought a higher price than Irish livestock and, likewise, enabled the settlers to save money rather than purchase new African slaves.

Is it true that many descendents of slaves today have lighter complexions because their ancestors were raped by white masters?  Undeniably.  However, it is just as true that many are the descendents of slaves both white and black, that their lighter complexion is from an African slave father and an Irish slave mother, rather than a slave master.  And the descendents of those slaves are as much descendents of their Irish mothers as they were of their African fathers.

When the Barbary pirates captured white slaves from Europe and took them back to Africa, they were every bit as much slaves as the Africans brought to the Americas, suffering under brutal conditions.

By extension, for the 250 years between 1530 and 1780, the figure could easily have been as high as 1,250,000 – this is only just over a tenth of the Africans taken as slaves to the Americas from 1500 to 1800, but a considerable figure nevertheless. White slaves in Barbary were generally from impoverished families, and had almost as little hope of buying back their freedom as the Africans taken to the Americas: most would end their days as slaves in North Africa, dying of starvation, disease, or maltreatment.

As per the above quote, the number was smaller than the African trade, but does that justify forgetting them?  Does that justify pretending that there were no White slaves in Africa, taken by Africans?  Does that justify pretending that there were no white slaves in the Americas?

Ignoring this piece of history does nothing to correct the injustices today.  Ignoring this piece of history does nothing to ease the suffering of those who continue to suffer, so what is the goal of such willful ignorance?

The suffering of those today is not validated through denial of others suffering.  It is validated through the suffering itself.  Those feelings are their own validation, they need nothing more than that.  To attempt to use ignorance of history as a validation for feelings can only serve to diminish that validation when history is illuminated.

There is no data, no statistic, no historical fact that can diminish the horror of the Africa slave trade.  Why, then, is data and historical fact so quickly brushed under the carpet as if to acknowledge that the suffering in slavery was not one-sided somehow detracts from the suffering of Africans?

My ancestors were Irish.  My people, too, suffered slavery, both at the hands of the English and at times the hands of the Africans.  I won’t pretend that I have forgotten this history, and I won’t stay quiet when someone else tries to ignore it.

That does not mean I am pretending to understand the current discrimination that happens today.  The Irish have been integrated into society in a way that blacks have not.  They became “normalized” whereas blacks have not.

I learned about the African slave trade in school.  But I never learned about the Irish slave trade.  I never learned about the white slaves in Africa.  These things were quietly ignored.

This has nothing to do with justifying racism.  It has nothing to do with detracting from African suffering.  It has nothing to do with telling someone to ‘get over it.’

I am not asking for anything beyond the simple acceptance of facts.  I am not asking for pity, or sympathy, or empathy.  I am not asking for anger, or guilt, or any emotion at all.

It has everything to do with acknowledging the reality of history.  We can’t learn from history when we refuse to accept the whole of it.  And accepting the whole of history in no way diminishes any one part of it.  Tragedies are tragedies, there is little chance of having any major tragedy of history watered down through the knowledge of others.

References:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/white_slaves_01.shtml#two

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2004/mar/11/highereducation.books

http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-irish-slave-trade-the-forgotten-white-slaves/31076

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To be fair, that last one – Grace Kelly @ADobTrack – does have a point.

After all, I’m highly upset that SHE is commenting on who sings the United States National Anthem. Clearly from Europe…

*facepalm*

Seriously, people? Are we really still doing this?

No More Race

I swear I think some people need to be required to get a license to use the Internet. Following the Internet ugliness over the Cheerios commercial that dared show a mixed family, the Internet racists went crazy when a Latino kid, an Hispanic-American, sang the national anthem at the 3rd game of the NBA Finals.

Racist Tweets

And there is plenty more where that came from as you can see here.

But the kid and his family responded with class to the whole thing, pointing out that he IS an American, from San Antonio actually. And kudos to the Spurs for bringing him back last night to stick it to those idiots by having him sing the anthem all over again. Only thing better would have been if he also held up a box of Cheerios at the end.

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There are two kinds of context.  The one in which something is presented, and the one in which something is consumed.  Words are spoken in the first kind of context, and they are heard in the second.  And these contexts do not always see eye to eye.

There are people who say that your intent doesn’t matter, only your words.  It doesn’t matter if you weren’t thinking of *that* when you spoke, if the person who heard you was, you’re still to blame, apparently.

I don’t agree with that.  It puts the burden of having to know the context of the lives of everyone who might possibly hear on you, and that is an impossible burden to bear, and it removes any possibility of reaching cultural understandings and simply makes one party “wrong”, end of discussion.

A person is responsible for their words, yes, but only to the degree that they can reasonably be expected to know or anticipate the reaction to them.  That means they are not responsible for every possible reaction based on a listeners individual context.

A person who makes rape jokes, then apologizes because he didn’t know one of the people listening had been raped… is not being defended here.  The context of the so-called “joke” is the problem in the first place, regardless of whether the person hearing has experienced it of not.   They may claim the intent was not to offend but such “jokes” are offensive by their very nature.

What I am saying is, if a person says something that they intended to be entirely innocent or mean something very different, they are not responsible for someone else misunderstanding what they meant or how they meant it.

This struck me today by way of a humorous almost-accident at work.

The manager, having reviewed the resume of a potential computer drafter, wrote a reply back that it looked as if she had excellent qualifications and experience in the field, but was concerned that the resume offered “no example of modeling experience.”

Once the reply was finished, he re-read the reply (which is something you should always do, by the way) and realized that what he meant was something very different than what might be taken by the recipient.  He quickly changed it to “solid  modeling experience,” but then realized that might not be any better.   After a brief moment of laughter as he was trying to come up with a reply that could not be misconstrued, he settled on “solid parts modeling experience.”

It got me thinking about how what we say can so easily be taken the wrong way, but that if he had sent off his first reply, would it have been fair to accuse him of being sexist because “What, the female drafter wasn’t a model, so that’s why you didn’t hire her??”   No, obviously that was neither the intent of his words nor the context in which the reply was being sent.

If he *hadn’t* noticed the possibility of being misunderstood, it still would have been his intent to inquire as to her experience in solid parts modeling not personal modeling.

That stuck in my mind, because people seem too quick to say intent doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter if you didn’t *intend* to offend anyone, you did.  It doesn’t matter if you didn’t *intend* to sound sexist, you did.  It doesn’t matter if you didn’t *intend* to sound racist, you did.

Well, I wonder about that.  If you didn’t intend to offend, and your words were not ones that by their nature are offensive, then yes, it does matter that you didn’t intend to offend someone.  Someone being offended is on their shoulders.  Understanding has to go both ways.  You can realize that in some contexts or with some people, what are otherwise innocent words can be misunderstood.  But you can never know what every person who hears/sees your words may possibly understand them as, and there is no phrase PC enough that you can avoid every possibility of offense.

If you meant to ask if a person had ‘solid parts modeling’ experience when you asked if they had ‘modeling’ experience, that is not the same thing as being sexist, even if someone else did not understand the context in which you asked the question and became offended.  Them misunderstanding you is not proof of your bigotry, nor does it somehow infuse your words with inherent bigoted language.  It should not become an issue where you must issue some sort of press-conference sized apology.

Them misunderstanding you is only an indication that further communication needs to take place to bring the speaker and the listener into a shared context of understanding.  It is *not* an indication that the listener has no obligation to understand what the speaker meant and that the speaker is the one who must make every concession towards understanding.

Yes, in this instance, it was noticed that ‘modeling experience’ could easily be misunderstood, because the speaker (writer) had a shared context with the perspective listener (reader) that allowed him to reasonably anticipate the possibility of misunderstanding and forestall that.

However, there are often times when a speaker can not anticipate the way his or her words would be understood because there is no shared context between the two of why the words are (or are not) offensive.

An example of this is a discussion I had with an Australian, in which I asked what – to me – was a simple and very innocent question, “which sports team are you rooting for?”  In American English, ‘rooting’ in this context would mean cheering for or supporting.  In Australian English, it meant something very, very different (and very vulgar) and lead to a momentary embarrassment before the usage of the word in our respective cultures was understood by the other to be very different than what our understanding was on our own.

In this case, there is no possible way I could have anticipated the vastly different definition we applied to the same word, or how my question could have been misunderstood or caused possible offense.  There is no way I could have known, because I had never before been in a position to learn.  And that is the crux of many misunderstandings, not that a person should have known better, but that they had never had the opportunity to learn.  Ignorance is a human *reality*, not a failing.  There is more in this world that we don’t know than what we do, so we should always be open to learning, and we should always be forgiving to those who simply haven’t learned yet.

So my intent was not to be vulgar and offensive, and even if my words had caused offense, such misunderstandings need to lead to communication and understanding on both sides.  It would not have been appropriate for the listener to demand an apology, to insist that what I meant didn’t matter because what I said was so offensive it was beyond intent, or that I should carry some burden of shame for having been misunderstood.

In this case, I did not cause offense, even if offense was taken.  Now, as a nice person, you should obviously apologize when your words hurt, but there should always be an effort to be understood as not having meant to cause hurt, and that really should count for a lot.

Again, there are examples of the meetings of cultures in days gone by, where what may be considered neutral or even good in one culture was considered very offensive in another.  But of course, until these cultures meet and communicate, there is no possible way for either to have known!  The burden should always be on gaining understanding, not holding onto our hurt feelings as if they truly are the only things that should matter.  Because really, if we understand others better, it is likely our feelings won’t be hurt by such things in the future.

Understanding goes both ways: the person speaking learns a new context and hopefully seeks to remedy that source of misunderstanding, and the person hearing learns to let go of a possible source of pain/offense.  Win-win, right?

That is why I get so upset when people say intent doesn’t matter.  Yes, it does.  Intent matters just as much as words do.  If a person says or does something that you find offensive, before you simply put it back on the person as being “obviously in the wrong”, consider that there are always two contexts, and just because you understood something as being offensive does not always mean that offense was intended to be given.

Now obviously this can sometimes be a cop-out.  I’ve snapped at a co-worker for making snarky remarks about a person’s last name in relation to whether they could speak English and of course he immediately replied “I didn’t mean to offend”… well, yes he did, he just didn’t think it would offend me.

There may be people you know who would not be offended by certain things, and it’s fine if you get your group together and say whatever you want knowing that you all share a context in which no offense will be taken and everyone walks away fine. I’m not talking about that.  What a few do in privacy between themselves isn’t up for anyone else to debate.

What I am talking about is what level of responsibility we can reasonably lay upon a person for their words, and what level of responsibility we must take on ourselves as the recipient (intended or not) of those words.

Just because you were offended doesn’t mean they were being offensive.  Your reaction is not the end-all of the argument, nor the only part of the equation that matters.  There is responsibility on both sides to understand and seek to better the dialogue, it is not a burden to be placed on just one side or the other.

Thoughts?

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I’m going to list some attributes, and I want you to take a few moments and really consider not just each attribute, but what association  you make with that word, the other thoughts, concepts, and ideas that spring to mind when you read it:

Female

Blonde

Glasses

Tattooed

Engineer

Irish

Traveler

Take a moment to think of what each attribute “tells” you about the person who has it.

We tend to, conscious or not, associate certain *values* to physical attributes, ethnic origin, or even career choices.  Some are fairly neutral in nature, others can be positive, but unfortunately, many are negative.

But whether the association is positive, negative, or even neutral, the problem is making the association in the first place can hinder your brain’s ability to see and accept information that contradicts that association.

The image of the ‘Drunken Irish’ can be so ingrained in a person that even if they met an Irishman or woman who had never touched alcohol in their lives, they may still find themselves suspicious of their sobriety or trustworthiness.

The image of a ‘Dumb Blonde’ can heighten your notice of everything a blond girl does wrong, while overlooking what they do right, even seeing them as less intelligent than another despite actual results.

The image of an “Irrational Woman” may mean you dismiss even entirely rational and justified anger or frustration on the part of a woman because it’s easier to make it her problem rather than see your (or someone else’s) contribution to the reaction.

Stereotypes originate through the part of the brain that really, really loves to categorize the world in order to make it both make sense, and to develop processes for dealing with new situations.  Familiar can become invisible, new can be frightening, common can become confused for normal*, and so on.

The way to counter the negative effects of stereotyping isn’t to suddenly decide “Well, I just won’t do that!”  To some degree, it isn’t controllable.  The brain can make these associations before you’ve even realized you’ve done it.  What’s important is to recognize these unconscious and automatic associations and actively allow new information to correct them.

Stereotypes reduce people to categories rather than individuals, and no one fits neatly into every category you may have.

For example, while blonde may generally be associated with stupid, glasses are often associated with being smart, and yet neither hair pigmentation nor impaired eyesight are linked with intelligence in any way.   So recognizing the unconscious attempt to categorize one attribute into a false association can help you not limit another person through your own stereotypes.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself that’s all well and good for some things, but other stereotypes are justified.  Well, it’s more likely to say that some stereotypes have been justified through selective observation.

If you associate red hair with a temper, and not brown hair, any show of anger from a red head you’ll attribute to the hair (i.e., they don’t really have a reason to be angry, they just have a hot temper because they’re a red head!), whereas any show of anger from a brown haired person you may view very differently (surely they must have a good reason for being that angry.)

So the same behavior will be filtered through a different lens of observation, one being used to justify a continuation of a stereotype, whereas the other is simply allowed to be what it is without having to find further reason for it.

Worse, a person may actively goad a person to a certain reaction as an excuse to then justify a stereotype.  Treat a person poorly enough, they’ll finally fight back, and thus you have neatly “proven” your original belief that the person is either violent or difficult to work with or whatever, when really you are the one who provoked a reaction that may be very natural across the board, not just belonging to one ‘group’.

So it isn’t enough to insist that whatever stereotype or prejudice you hold is justified through example, because your own ability to observe is colored by your prejudice in the first place.

Let’s say you had been raised with a negative view of piano players.  Perhaps your mother ran off with a piano player when you were young and so growing up all you heard was negative things about them.  You now believe that all piano players are either unfaithful, or will cause unfaithfulness in others, that they aren’t trustworthy or honest.

Now it wouldn’t matter how many piano players you had met since then that were faithful, honest and trustworthy, the second one person (who just happened to play the piano) did anything the slightest bit questionable, you would quickly insist that it’s because that person is a piano player! You knew they were all rotten, and here’s proof!

Now, does anyone really think that all piano players, everywhere in the entire world, are the same?  That their values, their beliefs, their customs, their actions, and how they treat others would somehow all be a mirror reflection of the one attribute of playing the piano?

No, of course not, that’s ridiculous.  And yet people do that all the time, only with much more subtle and insidious associations.  All Mexicans are here illegally and can’t speak English.  All blacks live in the ghetto and are in gangs.  All Asians are good at science and math.  All Polish people are stupid.  All Jews are greedy.  All Muslims are terrorists.

This is the exact same kind of thing, saying that one shared attribute must enforce many shared attributes.  But the logic is just as ridiculous here as it is with the piano player.  Perhaps you’ve only met one black person in your entire life, and they were in a gang.  Do you really think that must mean every black person is in a gang?? Does skin color somehow trump a person’s individuality?  What about national origin, are Poles really, as a whole people, that much less intelligent than anyone else?  Or Asians that much smarter?  Do you really know that every single Muslim on the planet has anything at all in common besides their religion?

What happens when you get crossed stereotypes that contradict one another?  A Polish Nuclear Physicist?  A Black President?

By insisting on your stereotypes and prejudices, you are not just closing your eyes to contradictory evidence, you are limiting other people to your narrow views of who and what they must be.

If you were a 49ers fan, would you want someone to make a whole host of assumptions about you based solely on your devotion to a sports team?  Do you share every attribute with every other 49ers fan?  Is there something in your genetic make-up that forced you to be a 49ers fan?  What if based on some other attribute of yours, someone refused to believe you were a 49ers fan?  Wouldn’t that be annoying?

We must always allow people to be both individuals and to contradict our preconceived notions about them, and the more we’re willing to recognize what those preconceptions are and allow them to be challenged, the more we can truly understand and connect with people around us.

Now, that isn’t to say that you can’t make any assumptions at all about a person.  If I’m being introduced to a Muslim, it might be a good idea to ask if he can shake my hand before extending it, and avoid a possibly awkward situation.  There are some cultural practices that you can learn about, and ask about, but don’t necessarily assume they *must* practice it, or insist they do if they say they don’t.

Point is, as in all things, the more open you allow your mind to be, the better off it is for everyone.  Don’t be so quick to make judgements about someone based solely on their occupation, skin or hair color, religion, ethnic background, culture, gender, or anything else.   Don’t use differences as points to mock or belittle, and don’t argue with what a person says about themselves: let them tell you who they are, don’t just think you can know them, as they also can’t know you.

When we let people be individuals, we experience the full and beautiful spectrum that is humanity.

*common vs. normal: they may seem the same, until you look at the opposites.  Common is wide-spread, uncommon is limited or rare.  But normal is seen as a positive attribute, whereas abnormal is seen as inherently negative.   Being left-handed isn’t common, but it isn’t abnormal.  Just like being gay may not be common, but it isn’t abnormal, either.  It’s okay to assume a “common” because… well… it’s common.  But don’t let uncommon become associated with abnormal, wrong, dangerous, frightening, or other negative connotations.  Let uncommon just be more rare.  (remember: coal is common, diamonds are rare 🙂 )

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Okay so I know I said this entry was supposed to be talking about the good things in America but first I want to talk about this because it’s been on my mind lately and I think I finally found a way to articulate it.

I know a lot of people today don’t realize how much damage we did and continue to do to a lot of people, cultures, and ethnicities.  We were taught in school that these things were in the past, they were done in a different time by different people.  That’s true, but that’s not really the point.  Some of it is *still* going on today, and some of it is still affecting today, and we can’t ignore that.

I’m not saying that any person is responsible for the actions of their ancestors, however recent.  Of course you aren’t, no one can be responsible for what someone else has done, even if you are related to them.  It isn’t fair to make anyone directly accountable for a crime committed by another person.

I am saying that we need to take responsibility for what happens now.  And this is the illustration I think best sums it up:  You may not be responsible for the hitting a person crossing the road with your car, but shouldn’t you take responsibility to help them?

This isn’t about laying blame but doing the right thing.  I don’t know if *my* direct ancestors ever did anything wrong.  I don’t know if they ever owned slaves, or ever massacred Native Americas, or ever showed prejudice toward anyone.  I don’t know if they did or didn’t – and that isn’t the point.  I’m part Irish, so for all I know my ancestors may have been slaves here, too!  That isn’t the point, either.  The point is there are people who did do these things, there are people who oppressed, enslaved, committed injustices, genocide, and other horrible things.  I’m not to blame for these things, but shouldn’t I – not as a “white person” but as both an American and a human being – be taking responsibility to help set things right?

Like in my illustration, maybe it wasn’t my car or me driving, but as a bystander, don’t I still have a responsibility to help people who are injured?

So that’s my view of it.  It isn’t about laying blame, just asking people to be responsible to set right what happened and is still happening today.

I know this is actually a shock to a lot of people, too.  I was raised believing that things like racism, discrimination, and the like were all things in the past, things we had already taken care of, things our nation had risen above, moved beyond.  Sure, I knew some people still harbored prejudices, but that’s always going to be the case.  What I didn’t know was how pervasive it still is, because it wasn’t where I grew up.

I lived in a diverse neighborhood, I grew up with friends of all colors and it never even occurred to me that it should be any other way, that it wasn’t the same everywhere.  I live in a pretty tolerant area.

When the internet allowed me to basically reach beyond where I lived and meet people and see people in larger cities or less diverse areas, I was shocked and sickened by some of what I heard.  I couldn’t comprehend the mindset of people to think or act in these ways.

I’ve been brought to silent tears on a number of occasions as my friend rather casually recounts her experiences growing up on and off the Res, and it just makes me sick.  It makes me angry.  It makes me feel so helpless to do anything about it, either.  But I’m trying, and hopefully things like this can help make a difference.

To everyone who has ever wondered why we still have Affirmative Action; to everyone who ever gets angry that we still talk about slavery and the Native American genocide; to everyone who ever was raised to think that these things are decades or centuries in the past, the sad truth is they are not.  The sad truth is we still need to help balance the scales.  The sad truth is even if you aren’t prejudice, you live in a country that still is.  Sometimes balancing the scales isn’t fair to the individual – you *are* paying for the mistakes of your predecessors – but it is a necessary sacrifice to help the whole.

And that kind of sacrifice for society is something American Culture is really bad at – it’s a time when we really need to look at other cultures and understand that sometimes the individual does need to step back a little and look at how we all are connected in so many ways.  To quote Spock (who was probably quoting someone else anyway) “The good of the many outweighs the good of the few or the one.” (yay, geek moment.)

Being so focused on the individual isn’t wrong, per se, but sometimes it can be short-sighted and harmful to many more.

So what can I do?  I’m still not really sure.  I can pay attention to political platforms, but if no one is talking about the problems it can be hard to decide who would do better with them.  So I guess the first thing that needs to be done is get people talking about it.  Get people aware that these problems are still real, still relevant, still exist today.  Get people to stop treating Affirmative Action as if it’s the problem – like everything would be okay without laws like that.  Get people to realize that even if the immigrants weren’t working in our fields, it doesn’t mean the out of work Americans would be!  (Because, you know, people who complain that immigrants take ‘our jobs’ wouldn’t stoop to doing those jobs themselves anyway.)

Just be aware, be conscious of it.  You don’t have to feel guilty or take it personally.  This is a problem with our society, and that means as a society we have to change.  That takes time.  I think we’re about half way there.  I think we’re finally reaching that tipping point where enough people born today are understanding this that eventually they will be the ones who by sheer numbers will make things better.  But half way in 40+ years means we still have a LONG way to go.  There are still a lot of prejudices out there to try to counter.   There is still a lot that society needs to do to really balance the scales.

What will *you* do?

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