My personal observations, perhaps not very scientific but still quite realistic I believe, have convinced me that a substantial portion of humanity is afflicted with a strange malady. This malady manifests itself when a person meets, or even hears of, someone with a different colour of skin. The symptoms are that this person then seems to become unable to absorb any more information about the person of a different colour. I have chosen to call this pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction.
This is not really the same thing as prejudice. Many people afflicted with this disorder would profess nothing but good will for people of another colour. They just seem unable to understand each other or to relate to each other in any meaningful way.
I know that a great many white people are afflicted with this. Here in Saskatchewan, when a white person encounters an Indian (or First Nations) person, he tends to instinctively think of all the stories he has heard of Indians with broken homes, a drinking problem and an inability to hold a job. Of course there are many Indians who are hard-working, responsible and sober. We tend to identify them as being white people, thus not allowing their example to change our “knowledge” of what Indians are like. It may take years of acquaintanceship before the white person is able to absorb any other information about what the Indian person is really like.
Many Indian people have their own knee-jerk reflex perceptions of what white people are like, thus both groups face major hurdles in learning to know each other.
No group of people is immune from this malady. An Indian couple on a reserve in Eastern Canada adopted a black child. The band council passed a resolution denying this child membership in the band and the privileges that would go with it. A Christian Indian lady of my acquaintance says that her mother, who is of 1/8 white ancestry, is known as “White Woman” on the reserve.
The same symptoms are manifested, though to a slightly lesser degree in Canada, in the way whites perceive black people and the way black people perceive white people. I recall an incident while we were living in Montréal and worshipping in a small mission congregation. One Sunday morning a young black man stepped into church, saw only white people and immediately became very nervous. I went to speak to him and invited him to join us, but he looked at our literature rack and seized upon that as an excuse, saying he had only come to get some information and he would come back another time. He never did. I have often kicked myself for my slow thinking, for there was a black lady seated on the side of the church that was not visible from the doorway. Would it have made a difference if I had quickly called Esperanza and asked her to help this young man feel at home?
How would I have reacted if the tables were turned and I was the only white person walking into a church full of black people? I would like to think that while I may not be totally cured of pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction (it seems to be a congenital disorder in most of us), I have had enough experience in being around black (and other non-white) people that I would not immediately panic and run for the nearest exit.
We might like to think that a disorder such as pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction could not exist among Christian people. Yet I observed in Montréal that most evangelical denominations had separate congregations for blacks and whites. There were only a handful of congregations where black and white people seemed able to worship together. No one seemed to have a valid reason why it didn’t work in other denominations. I would suggest that it is due to the undiagnosed presence of pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction.
The first step toward being cured of pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction is to admit that one has it. This is pretty hard on our pride, for we like to think of ourselves as warmhearted, magnanimous people without a trace of prejudice. But how do we react when we meet someone of another skin colour? What if we meet a whole group of people of that colour? Or do we perhaps do our best to avoid such a situation?
We can avoid any but the briefest contact with people of another skin colour and convince ourselves that we are entirely free of such a thing as pigment triggered cognitive dysfunction. That is self-deception. I don’t know of any other cure but to spend time with people who look different that we are and discover that they really aren’t very different after all.