Ignorance, Stupidity, Racism, and Morality

I was raised in the rural South, and while I never cared for fried fish that much, hushpuppies were a different story. I would love to gorge myself on them right now if I hadn’t learned in adulthood that there were healthier alternatives. Despite my early ignorance of good food choices, I’ve been fortunate to sample quite a variety since then, and to learn a little about the ever-changing subject of nutrition. Many of the folks I grew up with have not had those opportunities, and their ignorance shows in some of their waistlines.

Ignorance is universal. As Will Rogers said, “Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.” Smart people can be just as ignorant as stupid people, and sometimes on the same subjects. It may be more difficult for the smart ones to see their ignorance, much less get rid of it, because they can’t imagine that they might be wrong. On the other hand, if stupid people recognize their lack of intelligence, it may make them humble enough to accept new information, given the right circumstances.

I’ve always been considered a pretty smart guy, but life has confronted me with my ignorance often enough that I’ve become comfortable with the possibility that there may be gaping holes in my knowledge. I’ve learned to consider evidence that contradicts my views and to correct at least some of my mistakes, which, in my experience, is much more beneficial than clinging to them in a hopeless attempt to maintain the illusion of infallibility.

One of the most widespread and consequential areas of ignorance is on the subject of how people get their values and preferences. People assume that the things they hold dear are unquestionably right, and it doesn’t occur to them to make a serious investigation into the roots of their beliefs. If they did, they would find that if their lives had been different in just a few small ways, they would have become totally different people—liking different foods, different sports, in a different job, with a different spouse, and with different attitudes toward their fellow human beings. Who we are is the result of a series of accidents over which we had no control.

To quote myself:

None of us have chosen the major factors influencing who we are. Our sex was determined long before we were conscious, and that one attribute is responsible, not only for our physiology, but for the way the rest of humanity responds to us. Our race, ethnic group, nationality, and kinship were likewise determined for us; and who we love and hate, who we nurture or commit violence against, are played out within these boundaries.

Within these larger parameters, each of us responds to and is shaped by our local environment based on inherited capabilities. No two people experience exactly the same reality, and with a nudge from a parent, a push from a teacher, a book here and a cartoon there, we change, grow, and accumulate our identifying coloration.

My attitudes toward black people were formed at an early age, and they were different from those of my parents. We had always had black babysitters—I remember an old lady sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch shelling peas when I was 3. At 11, it occurred to me to ask my mom why black people weren’t treated the same as whites. “They’re just different from us,” she said, but that didn’t mesh with my experience: Minnie, Jaruth, and the others I’d known were human beings, just like me, and treating them otherwise didn’t seem fair.

I had already begun to doubt my parent’s views on things by the time I was 7. First I found out that they had lied to me about Santa Claus, and then Mom told my brother and I that if we played with ourselves we might have to go to the hospital for an operation. I didn’t know what kind of playing she thought we were doing, and didn’t ask, but I was convinced that a little fondling was not that dangerous. Of all the other kids I knew who were playing with themselves, none had missed school because of hospital visits to treat injured genitals. I began to think I should be suspicious of everything my parents said.

Their views on sex never changed, as far as I know, but their racial attitudes were radically transformed by events in later years. When I was college age, I remember my dad telling me angrily from the front steps that in his day, black people knew their place. A black man would never knock on a white man’s front door—they knew they should go around to the back. “And that made you feel superior, better than them,” I said. He looked shocked, as if that were the first time anyone had questioned the rightness of his beliefs.

By the time I was 40 or so, through an odd chain of circumstances my mom and dad had met and learned to love a black preacher and his wife who lived in California. They stayed at my parents’ house a few times when they were visiting Florida, about which some of the neighbors complained, to no effect. Reverend Thrower was pastor of a church in Berkeley, and during the few months when my folks were living in San Francisco, taking care of my AIDS-stricken brother, his parishioners made sure that they had a ride to church, where they would be the only white people.

People are rarely changed by rational argument, but the fortunate ones are changed by life. If my conservative Southern parents could lose their racial prejudice, it could happen to anyone, given the right circumstances.

Included in each of our lives are the vicarious experiences of other people’s lives. Through empathy, we incorporate their lives into our own. The stories we’ve been told, have read and seen, have made us who we are, and the more aware we become of that process, the more we can see what a patchwork we are. We can learn to see that some of our patches are more beautiful, more harmonious, than others, and the best of what we are can look for experiences and information that will transform our less attractive parts.

Racism is a product of ignorance, with or without stupidity, and the more we learn about the origins of our own morality, about the events that led to our present state, the more suspect we may become of racist attitudes held by ourselves or anyone else.


abstract painting, half black and white




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