Vanais Harrigan

is an English major who was recently graduated from Arcadia University

Much of my life has been spent in frustration over the prejudicial treatment I've had to endure. I am black, and I've experienced mostly racial prejudice. I've also experienced class prejudice, though to a lesser degree. I deal with prejudice when it comes up, but still I'm bewildered by its presence. What is either racial or class prejudice but an attempt to protect yourself from people with whom you might have much in common?

I've watched it work. I am black and I live in an all-white neighborhood. I've attended predominantly white churches. So I have felt prejudice based on race. Class, too. I've been brought up in a middle-class home, but when I cross class boundaries, I discover something much like racial prejudice: again, an at-arm's-length treatment characterized by superiority and fear.

In my life, this treatment has run from subtle hints to blatant rejection. I had the advantage of a huge yard as a child, and this garnered many fair-weather white friends. They came over to play in my jungle gym of a yard, but rarely to eat lunch or spend the night. We lived in a corner house, from which I and my siblings waved at every resident of our street and then some. What was disappointing were the countless people who didn't wave back, the people who, when we walked around the neighborhood, stared as though at intruders. (Many of these people still do stare, questioning my belonging in my hometown, and it both hurts and angers me.)

Perhaps prejudice stems from insecurity. People who fear losing control of their own circumstances seek to prescribe their own comfort zone, maintaining a confined, comfortable circle. Not very diverse circles, these, but safe. The people outside the circle may have much in common, much to contribute, much to share, and on some level the prejudiced person knows this. Still, safety is sought - from people who may share the same interests but have a different skin color, or from classes to which the circle-drawer once belonged but no longer wants to know.

It's ironic, isn't it, that people seek separation from others with whom they surely have more in common than differences?

I've wondered what the owners of million-dollar homes would lose if they spoke without condescension to their flooring contractor. I wonder whether they realize that, when disdaining to acknowledge this "other" person,

At one time, my own reaction to prejudice was angry disdain. There was a time when I would proclaim, "There are days when I hate white people." Some people I know dislike rich people just on principle.

But that, too, is a kind of prejudice, a refusal to be open. So my final question (and in part, I'm asking it of myself) is: With what attitude could we replace the at-arm's-length treatment and the angry disdain?

On the side of a Starbuck's cup, I picked up a quote from John Moe's book

Conservatize Me

, which offers advice I wish more people would heed. He writes: "You can learn a lot more from listening than you can from talking. Find someone with whom you don't agree in the slightest and ask them to explain themselves at length. Then, take a seat, shut your mouth, and don't argue back. It's physically impossible to listen with your mouth open."

I'd like to think I'm trying to take his advice quite literally. If, instead of protecting themselves from people who are presumably different from them, the classist, the racist, the misogynist/misanthrope, any prejudiced persons would allow themselves to be open, a little more vulnerable, we might find something surprising: good ideas, valuable wisdom, well-informed minds. It is what Anne Elliot, the heroine of Jane Austen's


, refers to as "good company." But I also agree with the novel's villain, who corrects her in saying that it is "the best company." Like several of Austen's heroines, she must learn her way out of prejudice - and she finds she must start with allowing herself to listen without defenses, encounter others without borders. Those who seek only the company of people supposedly "superior" in race or in class may be missing out on what's all around them - the best company of all.