All people prejudge, as it is a way to easily classify a complex universe. We prejudge a book based on its cover, and we prejudge a bottle of wine based on its label. Usually, prejudging something based on appearance is a harmless activity. However, prejudging human beings based on ethnicity is a form of racism, and racism impedes political and social justice. Yet how is it possible to stop prejudice? And even more importantly, in the face of extreme prejudice, how does one ignore it or, in the words of Brent Staples, "just walk on by"?
The answer to the question of how one learns how to cope with prejudice depends on the person, of course. Each individual will have his or her own method of dealing with prejudice, sexism, racism, and other types of discrimination. Of course, in an ideal world, a person does not need to learn how to cope with prejudice because prejudice does not exist in the real world. Yet as Angelou, Hurston, and Staples all show, prejudice is unfortunately a part of reality in the United States. There may be laws against racist practices, but in the daily lives of people of color, prejudice still exists. Maya Angelou in "Graduation" writes about the prejudice that affects children. Children, who are nothing but innocent, are prejudged based on their ethnicity and skin color. This insipid form of prejudice is something that all African-American children have to face and address in their own ways. Zora Neale Hurston knows what it is like to have people prejudice her as a child. When she was thirteen, she moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where for the first time she was "thrown against a sharp white background." Where she grew up in Eatonville, everyone was black. She felt in control of her identity and destiny because no one in the community prejudiced her for her ethnicity and skin color. When whites met her, they knew nothing about her but judged her anyway. How is it possible to deal with prejudice in a way that is peaceful, without lashing out in anger at the perpetrators? For Staples, it seems rather easy. He just "walks on by," because he has learned not to take the prejudicial world to heart. Instead of fighting the system, Staples finds inner peace in continuing his walks and being prepared to face up to whatever frightened looks and locked doors come his way.
In a similar fashion, Maya Angelou describes the way she and her classmates "walked on by" after experiencing their first real bout of racism. The valedictorian at the school, Henry Reed, sang a poem by James Weldon Johnson. The poem was known as the "Negro National Anthem," notes Angelou (31). The lyrics are about lifting up every voice to sing "till earth and heaven ring, / Ring with the harmonies of Liberty," (31). Singing this anthem brings together the community after their encounter with racism. In addition to the Negro National Anthem, the black students in Angelou's graduating class also knew spiritual songs and hymns like "Jesus Loves Me This I Know." Because Angelou had never before experienced racism, her graduation has a special meaning in her life. She came of age fully at the graduation because before the experience, she was innocent and naive. Like Hurston in Eatonville, Angelou felt that the world was her oyster, at her fingertips to seize and do what she wanted with as an adult. Her coming of age came unexpectedly, not from lessons at school or kissing a boy, but by looking racism in the face. Angelou and her classmates "walked on by" by singing together about liberty and justice. They joined together in the spiritual message of peace, transforming the hatred into love. For Angelou, "walking on by" means staring the evil of racism straight in the face and saying, "I don't care." Angelou states, "We were on top again. As always, again. We survived."
"Walking on by" is a figurative action of combining the courage to walk away from injustice with the equal determination to persist and overcome. "The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls. I was no longer a proud graduating class of 1940; I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race," (32). By singing through their pain and suffering the graduating class refused to succumb to the racism and the false belief that they were categorically inferior to whites. The act of refusal is an act of political defiance, even though they hold no actual rally at the time. Simply by persisting in their joy and singing, the black community refuses to feed the racist system.
Fighting the system only reinforces the negative patterns that are created, like the racial profiling that Brent Staples describes in "Walk On By." Staples knows that antagonism is just what the cops want, as they would be baiting the young black man to live up to the stereotype of being a thug. Staples knows he has nothing to "prove." He is not being weak by "walking on by." Quite the contrary, walking on by is a subversive and politically meaningful message. The act of walking has a political connotation because Staples claims that "night walking" was exactly when the residents, especially women, were most afraid of him. The people thought he was a criminal or mugger, and yet the same pattern happened during the day. His presence scared people, and Staples knew there was nothing he could do. When he acted "white," such as by wearing suits and singing Vivaldi, the reactions from others was calmer than when he acted "black," whatever stereotypes the person holds about acting "black." Walking on by means walking away from all stereotypes on the grounds they are all ridiculous and false notions.
Zora Neale Hurston also "walks on by" the willingness of whites to label her as "colored." In a white world, being "colored" is being stained. The whites paint Hurston with a label, and she does not appreciate the label Yet she does not fight it, either. Just like Angelou and Staples, she "walks on by" in her own way. "I do not mind at all. I do not be long to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all but about it." Hurston is strong enough to face racism with her head held high. The beliefs of racism are not to be taken seriously, because they are wrong. If prejudice and racism bother a person, that person only feeds the negative energy. Hurston does not even like to feel depressed about the legacy of slavery. She claims that "walking on" from the past is an affirmation of a more positive future.
To "walk on by" means to welcome a new reality in which prejudice does not exist. Systematically rooting out racism takes many generations of time. Even if it never happened, equality would be a lofty ideal to pursue. Staples, Hurston, and Angelou all pursue the goal of equality to create inner peace and to create peace in their communities. Unfortunately, not all people of color know how to "walk on by." As Staples puts it, "poor and powerless young men seem to take all this nonsense literally." Calling prejudice and racism "all this nonsense" takes the sting and power out of it. It is similar to a child who walks away from a bully at school and therefore makes the bully look like the bad guy. Staples suggests that the black men who try to look "tough" in order to live up to their image in a self-fulfilling prophesy are perpetuating the problem of prejudice. Their "thug" image is something that was created by whites. White media projects that image to create segregation and racism. Any black man who absorbs the label and acts like a thug is therefore feeding white power and privilege. Hurston sends the same message. The notion of being "colored" was created by whites, and so people should not don the label "colored" without considering that they live in a white paradigm when they do so.
Prejudice remains a part of the social structure of American society. It is built into the system, as Angelou points out. Prejudice is instinctual for many Americans, as Staples shows in the unconscious action of people to cross the street when they see him. Doing anything to feed the system is wrong; doing that which devalues the system is right. When Staples "takes precautions," he protects himself from the actual threat to his well being that prejudice entails. He moves over, to exaggerate the fact that the white person's fear is unwarranted. Eventually, Americans might stop projecting their fears onto young black men, and young black men will stop living up to the prophesy that they are "thugs."
Therefore, the answer to the question of how one can ignore prejudice is simply to…