Do you remember when you learned the meaning of the word “prejudice”?
A recent incident in my life brought back recollections of an experience I had back in my high school days.
First, for younger readers here, understand that there was no global village, i.e. Internet, back in the 1960s, and many of us kids in the ‘burbs lived very sheltered lives. We weren’t as worldly as today’s teens are.
So, flashback to the fading peace and love era of the late 1960s, when I was in high school — before I talk about the recent event that, in a way, shows some things don’t change all that much.
The scene: a history class.
“Would you be seen in a public park with a black person?”
I was offended by that question.
It was on a work sheet handed out to the students by the teacher, and that was one of the first questions.
It made me very angry. What a stupid question! So, I put up my hand and told him so. And I pointed out that we had a black person in the class, and “just how do you think something like this would make her feel?”
In hindsight, of course, I realized later that the teacher was trying to teach us about bigotry. But instead of seizing upon my indignation and anger and using it as a good teaching opportunity by saying something like, “You’re right to be angry about questions like that, because they are all too common in this world,” he yelled at me and demanded an apology.
Oh, really? . . . Yah, right. Like that’s going to happen, eh. I refused to apologize, and literally got saved by the bell: class ended and off we went to our next classes.
The next day in history class, the teacher started by telling us that he had a hard time sleeping the night before, that he was troubled by the suggestion that the work paper was discriminatory by singling out black people, and that he never meant to be offensive. He apologized, and the assignment was withdrawn.
I must confess that I feel a bit guilty about it to this day. He meant well, but you see, I was just an innocent youth who had never experienced prejudice. In the months that followed, I would learn a lot more about prejudice, and even experience some: A Jewish mom didn’t want me dating her child because I wasn’t Jewish; the school showed us films about the Holocaust and the horrors of concentration camps, etc. There was and is a lot of bigotry in this world, in many forms and shades.
Well, I am just as idealistic now as I was back then, though not quite so naive. But, to quote a Simon & Garfunkel song popular at that time, “the fighter still remains.” I still get angry when I see prejudice in this world, which may be why I have been standing up for LGBTQ people these past 10 years or so. And I get uncomfortable when groups of people are marginalized or singled out for questionable, sometimes whimsical studies in the name of education.
So what aroused “the fighter” this time, you might be wondering.
Well, I was asked to be part of a panel discussion in front of journalism students on how LGBTQ issues have been and are currently handled by the mainstream media. At first, I agreed to do it — a mistake on my part, I confess — but when I received the actual questions (this time via email rather than on a sheet of paper in class), I was somewhat offended, both as a journalist and as a member of the LGBTQ community.
Now, I know that the professors who arranged for this panel meant well. Make no mistake about that.
But, I wondered, why would journalists cover LGBTQ issues in the news differently than any other news stories? And is there a journalism student who doesn’t understand that?
Objectivity is Rule No. 1 in news stories and related feature articles. This has always been the case in my decades of work as an editor. When we report and edit articles, we put our personal feelings and our personal situations on the back burner. In my work, I am an editor first. And everybody in the news is treated equally and fairly.
And it troubled me that LGBTQ people were being singled out for this discussion. Remember, this is Canada we’re talking about, where LGBQ people have equal civil rights and transgender people are not far behind. That’s all we LGBTQ people ever wanted: to be treated equally and not to be singled out unnecessarily.
These were just some of the thoughts I had, and I decided to share them with the organizers of the panel before the event. I explained to them that I might challenge the premise of the panel discussion, and encourage their students to treat LGBTQ issues in the news with the same objectivity they would treat any other issues, and to put their own personal stuff on the back burner when they are at work.
It’s a no-brainer, right?
Apparently not. I got booted from the panel, because the organizers said they were afraid I might upset the students by challenging the process.
Say, what? Journalists upset by people expressing their views?
Of course, there is more to this than meets the eye. I felt I was considered to be something of a novelty item to the organizers — and by extension, that all LGBTQ people were being treated as novelty items. And I wasn’t playing along. I was going to teach the students that LGBTQ people simply want equality in all ways, and that the media respects that, because that is the mandate of the media! Duh . . .
And that’s why when the organizers had asked how they should introduce me to the students, I had told them to simply say I am a long-time editor and a member of the LGBTQ community, without getting into any specifics about my LGBTQ leanings.
OK, I might be oversensitive about these types of things. But we copy editors in the trenches have to be super objective, and the work molds our personalities after years and years of doing the job. We ask a lot of questions, and we challenge people. And, yes, we may make some people feel uncomfortable in the process.
Just like I did to my history teacher back in high school. And like I did to the organizers of the recent panel discussion.
All of these teachers, past and present, no doubt meant well. They all really felt they were doing something to teach young people. I am not putting down their methods so much as I am lamenting their response to my innocent reactions and questions — and how they could have used them as a teaching experience.
Instead, it was off with my head for daring to challenge the system, their system, not mine.
Photo: Novelty items: flamingos. (Argyriou, Wikimedia Commons)