A few weeks ago, I found myself in the middle of a conversation about Cher's transsexual son, Chaz Bono. The word "sick" was thrown around quite often, with matching repulsed facial expressions to boot. I remained silent for most of the conversation, only speaking up to muse about whether it was possible for Chaz to turn male completely (that is, to have a fully functional penis), and soon after that, the conversation had ended, we had moved on to a completely different topic. I was relieved by the end of it, but also uneasy. I felt like a hypocrite, like a traitor. I thought of my transsexual friend, and how, in my silence, I had failed her.
Since then, I've become conscious of the way I fall silent when issues like these are brought up. Friends and family sometimes say racist, homophobic, prejudiced things in my presence, and I know what they say is wrong, but the most I do is maybe correct their language, ask them to use a less offensive word, phrase things in a more sensitive way.
Sometime in the middle of college, my belief system changed and I learned about equality. I decided then that I would be a renegade, a fighter. I decided I would be a voice for equality, and cut out all the bigots in my life. Around this time, whenever I heard a remark that hinted at any kind of bigotry, I would immediately answer back, get into a very heated argument, then end up crying out of frustration and helplessness.
Then I realized a couple of things.
First, a discriminatory remark doesn't automatically make the person saying it the next Hitler. There is a difference between ignorance and spite. Most of the time, when I hear someone say something offensive, it's because they don't know how hurtful their words actually are. In fact, a lot of my friends and family are guilty of upholding prejudiced beliefs, and while I know their ideas are not good, I also know that they are not evil people. A lot of them were just raised on certain beliefs. Equality and Discrimination is not a matter of black and white, right and wrong. It's a whole tangled, colorful, complicated ball of nuance and context, and everything has to be taken subjectively.
Besides, wasn't I at one point in my life a bigot myself? When I was a kid, I thought that turban-toting Punjabi men on motorcycles were kidnappers, and called them "Bumbay." In high school, I debated in class about Shakespeare's sexuality, refusing to accept that my idol, the mighty Bard, progenitor of brilliance, was gay. I was a racist, and a homophobe, and I might still be one today if i hadn't taken up literature and had my mind opened to more accepting ideas, or if I hadn't met and made friends with minorities and LGBTs and realized firsthand that their race, gender identity, and sexual preference are actually just a small part of who they are, and underneath all those labels, they're really just PEOPLE. And even now that I've been enlightened, I still can't say I'm perfectly liberal and accepting. Heck, even John Lennon -- yes, that John Lennon, the Bed-In King and writer of "Imagine" -- admitted that he was racist to a certain degree (read Skywriting by Word of Mouth to put it in context).
I also realized that a heated debate, more often than not, will just breed bad blood. I don't want to end up alienating my family and friends simply because their beliefs are different, and, well, less progressive. Besides, arguing about these things just feels like I'm shoving my beliefs down their throats. I hate it when people do that to me, so why should I do that to them?
I guess I'm just afraid of having to argue forever. There is a lot of prejudice in the world and I don't want to go through life constantly battling with bigots. I'm a pacifist, not a warlord, though I know we can't really have peace when there are people who are being treated unjustly because of their sexual preference, or the color of their skin.
I know, bearing witness to the proliferation of injustice and sitting silently while doing so isn't right. I know I can't just shut up when a family member says that "Bumbays" are inconsiderate and rowdy when they talk about our neighbors who just happen to be Indian. I can't just unhear when a friend comments on how disgusting lesbian couples are. I know I have to say something.
But there has to be a way I can do so that won't be combative or aggressive, a way that will inspire curiosity instead of aversion. I think the way for people to start accepting equality is through education, understanding, and, as in my case, through other people. That said, we can't expect acceptance to happen overnight. It will take time. There has to be a way to break the silence without breaking bonds. Unfortunately, I don't know how to do that yet.