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Commentary: Confronting Bigotry In Others And Ourselves

NEW YORK CITY - MAY 13 2016: Andrew Cuomo & Bill de Blasio appeared in front of the Stonewall Inn for a vigil on behalf of the victims of the Orlando Pulse massacre

Recent shootings in Dallas, Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Orlando, Florida have raised concerns about racism and bigotry. The head of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas suggests the solution to these problems may start within ourselves. William Holston points to his own background as an example.

I was born in 1956 in Mobile, Alabama, the year the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended. My family was a stereotypical, white Protestant Southern family, with all of the prejudices you associate with that place and time.  Confederate General Stonewall Jackson was my boyhood hero, and I spent time digging up bullets in the Confederate battlefield trenches surrounding Mobile. Throughout my youth, I was blissfully unaware of the civil rights activists fighting for human dignity around me.

My school, my church, and my neighborhood were all segregated. I commonly used racial epithets as a boy. I was simply raised to believe that this was normal, even admirable, and that minorities were inferior to me. I am ashamed to admit this, but it’s important to say publicly that, no matter how you were raised, there is hope for development of the human conscience. I was not responsible for what sort of boy I was raised to be, but I was for what sort of man I would become.

My narrow world view began to crack open at Camp Maubilla in Jackson, Alabama when I was 12 in the Boy Scouts. It was the first time I had casual encounters with black children my age.   

A black teen counselor helped me pass my swim test, and I was profoundly moved by his kindness and patience.  I hung out in dorm rooms with other black kids talking about stuff teenagers talk about. And in those rain soaked piney woods, I realized African-American kids were no different than me.

Living with youthful bigotry was like walking around in a dark room. When I realized what I had been taught was not just morally unjustified, but also a lie, it was as if a light bulb was turned on. I was forced to confront my remaining prejudices about Catholics and Jews. And slowly, I began to understand the common humanity of all people.

I wish I could say this was the end of prejudice in my life, but there was much more work to do, work that continues to this day. In my youth, the worst insult I knew to call someone was ‘queer.’ As I aged, I met and befriended members of the LGBT community, and learned to no longer judge and define them by their sexual identity alone. However, it wasn’t until I knew I had two gay sons that I fully realized members of the LGBT community are people whose civil rights should be protected. The idea that my sons could not marry who they loved struck me as profoundly wrong.

I sometimes think we as Americans have made a lot of progress. But when preachers call people abominations, when politicians refer to Hispanics as rapists and criminals, when armed protesters surround mosques, I realize just how far we still have to go.  They say the first step in making change is admitting we have a problem. It’s not enough to merely condemn a man who kills 49 people in a gay club in Orlando. We must take responsibility, not only to confront the bigotry of others, but to admit our own, even if it's profoundly embarrassing.

William Holston is Executive Director of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas.