Growing up in the South, I was introduced to bigotry early. I heard what we now politely call “the N word” frequently. In South Texas, I often heard the word Mexican used not as a description of someone’s heritage, but as an epithet. When I was a little boy, World War II was less than 10 years in the past, and I rarely heard Japanese people referred to as anything but “Japs,” particularly by those who had fought them in the Pacific.
I don’t believe bigotry is born into little children. It was not so for me. I cannot remember shrinking from playing with another child whose skin was darker than mine. When I was learning to read, my mother would sit me on her lap and help me with the words. One of my favorite children’s books had been given to her when she was learning to read—probably around 1928. It was about little black children, and it would no doubt be considered highly offensive today. But the lesson I took from the book was not that those children were lesser people because their skin was darker, but that they were little children like me—enjoying the same things, getting in trouble for the same things, growing in the same ways, loved by parents and grandparents the same way mine loved me.
There’s a song in an old movie musical, South Pacific, that holds an important lesson: “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught.” We are taught bigotry and prejudice, beginning very young, by the attitudes of those around us. As I grew older, I learned that some families didn’t live in our part of town because there were people who didn’t want to live by them. I learned that some people assigned negative characteristics to everyone of a particular ethnic heritage—whether they knew any individuals from that group or not.
The Texas border town where I lived during my high school years was divided by the railroad tracks next to U.S. Highway 83. Generally, neighborhoods south of the tracks were full of white Anglo-Saxons and neighborhoods north of the tracks were occupied by Mexican-American families. Some of my Anglo classmates seemed to feel they were more deserving of respect or deference because of their family’s ethnic background, position in the community, or prosperity. Some of those Anglos looked suspiciously at me because I enjoyed friendships with Latino classmates. Sixty years on, ethnic background, prosperity, and social status do not seem to have made much difference in the achievements of my classmates. Many, both Latino and Anglo, became great contributors in their communities, noted for their service, but it was not the ethnic or social backgrounds they came from that dictated whether they were successful. Individual effort and commitment seem to have been more influential. What they became was not determined by what someone called them or thought of them when they were younger.
I have lived long enough to learn that bigotry and prejudice are universal; they are present in people of all races and ethnic backgrounds. I have heard African-Americans use the N word against other African-Americans just as viciously as any white person. I have heard plenty of bigotry toward other races or ethnic groups from my white Anglo-Saxon peers. But I have also heard bigotry toward Latinos and Asians from African-Americans, bigotry toward blacks or Latinos from Asians, bigotry toward Native Americans from those of European ancestry, bigotry against Jews from people of almost all races.
I have toured Auschwitz-Birkenau, walked through an old slave exporting castle on the coast in Ghana, followed the outlines of a now carefully erased World War II Japanese internment camp in the Utah desert. I know where unchecked bigotry based on race or ethnicity can lead.
There is no excuse or justification for prejudicial practices toward others. From small, daily microaggressions to large-scale genocide, actions of prejudice are usually committed by people who don’t understand the relationship of their fellow men and women to God, or even their own relationship to God. Every great religious faith that I know, in its original, pure form, teaches that we are all children of a loving God. For example, Malachi 2:10: “Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us?” (See also Ephesians 4:6.) Anyone who persecutes another person is turning against family.
The Old Testament teaches that He is “the God of the whole earth” (Isaiah 54:5). The New Testament teaches that “God is no respecter of persons:
“But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34-35).
The Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ, reaffirms those Biblical teachings: “[H]e manifesteth himself unto all those that believe in him, by the power of the Holy Ghost; yea, unto every nation, kindred, tongue, and people, working mighty miracles, signs, and wonders among the children of men according to their faith.
“. . . and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:13, 33).
When we speak with disdain, with prejudice, with hatred toward other people on this earth, we are speaking against people God loved so much that He allowed His only Begotten Son to sacrifice His life in order to redeem them—to redeem you, and me. (See John 3:16.)
The cure for bigotry is for us to treat each other like the children of God that we are. We must learn to live by the Golden Rule taught by Jesus Christ: “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them” (Matthew 7:12). This teaching is found in some form in every major religion and has been taught throughout human history by inspired teachers God sent to bless His children. This cure is simple, yet profound. We stumble over it not because it is hard to do but because we are hard of heart.
People concerned about the effects of bigotry and prejudice in our society have often sought to end it through new laws, amendments, decrees, or government programs. Those may help to some limited extent. But bigotry and prejudice will not end in human societies until we learn to appreciate others as brothers and sisters, as members of our family whose hopes and dreams and eternal development are just as important as our own.
The road to this blessed state of human relationships starts in just one heart at a time—yours, and mine.