As you have probably heard on the national news circuit recently, my home state of Indiana has been quite the topic of conversation lately. For those of you who do not know, on March 26th Indiana passed a piece of legislation called Senate Bill 101 (SB 101), better known as the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” This bill states that “a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion…” This may not sound so bad, but what this document opens the door for is pretty scary. It implies that if a business owner does not want to provide his company’s services for a certain group of people because of his religious beliefs, that he does not have to. Believe it or not, a business in my tiny hometown of Walkerton, Indiana, which has a population of only 2,500 people, became the first organization to illustrate the dangers of this legislation. “Memories Pizza,” a small pizza place and one of very few restaurants in my little town, was the first business to openly state that they would deny their catering services to same-sex couples. Whether you agree with same-sex relationships or not, we all can agree that discrimination is bad, and that by allowing companies to deny service to any group of people they choose, we are opening the door for discrimination to occur. As I have been trying to stay up to date on this hot button issue that has been plaguing my hometown, I have been thinking a lot about prejudice and discrimination, and how these despicable parts of human behavior can impact your life.
Having been born with a severe, physical disability and having to use a power wheelchair my entire life, I have had to face a fair amount of discrimination. Whether it is a group of teenagers deliberately making fun of my disability at the mall or a business inadvertently not being wheelchair accessible, being singled out and treated differently as a result of something I have absolutely no control over is never easy to deal with. Even though throughout my life I have developed a lot of coping skills to help me manage the negative emotions that arise when these prejudicial situations occur, these feelings of discrimination still have an impact on me. It is not the judgment and discrimination from others that I struggle with however, but rather the feelings of self-discrimination that they create. For example, there are times when I will not go out to do something, because I am worried that I may be viewed or treated differently due to my disability. This self-discrimination is far more dangerous than the judgment of others, because it prevents you from even attempting to experience numerous parts of life. In reality, you could have enjoyed many of these situations without any feelings of discrimination arising, but because of your own fear of these potentially painful emotions, you prevent this from ever happening. As I have matured and learned how to better work through these difficult emotions, I have realized that this self-discrimination is actually what makes acts of prejudice so dangerous, as this is what gives these heinous acts their power.
When I was in my first year of college at Notre Dame, I had to write a term paper on civil rights for my required freshman composition class. As a part of this project, I also had to conduct an interview with someone and include the information I gathered in my paper. To satisfy this criterion I decided to interview a quite well respected professor in the African-American studies department, who I had had for another course the previous semester. During this interview he told me a story from his own life that greatly changed the way that I think about discrimination. Back in the 1970s, when he was 18 years old and was about to graduate from high school, he and his best friend, both of whom were black, decided to enjoy their final Summer of youthful freedom and independence by making a Jack Kerouac-like journey across the country. They spent countless hours planning their way, gathering the supplies they would need, and making all of the other necessary preparations to make their way from the “Deep South” to the California coast, and as the school year was drawing to a close they were merely waiting for graduation so that they could embark on this epic, once in a lifetime journey. Unfortunately though, they never made it to California. In fact, they never even made it out of their hometown. Despite the fact that they had spent a lot of their hard earned money preparing for this trip, devoted an enormous amount of time planning their route, and had been looking forward to their “On The Road” adventure for months, they never even left. They were so concerned, being two African-American, young men, about being discriminated against on their trip that they cancelled the whole thing before even starting.
Even though this was the late-1970s, and a lot of progress had been made in terms of racial equality and civil rights, the powerful effects of discrimination were still a major issue. There were still some people and places where outright discrimination would occur (and sadly, I fear there always will be), and the acts of prejudice and ignorance from these few individuals could be quite upsetting, painful, and at times even dangerous. While these prejudiced people were only a small minority of the general public, and the chances of coming into contact with them was extremely low, the power that these individuals had over their victims was quite large. Despite the fact that these two well-spoken, young men probably would have had no problems with discrimination during their cross-country trip, the anxiety and fear of this happening prevented them from even attempting to live out a dream that they had worked so hard to turn into a reality. This self-imposed discrimination is far more powerful than any form of prejudice that someone else could inject into your life, because it takes complete control over your actions. Whether these feelings of self-discrimination are justified or not, they were powerful enough to stop two young men from seeing the country, as well as keep me from experiencing certain parts of life, and this is what makes them so dangerous. The danger lies in the fact that self-discrimination does not need to have anything “real” attached to it in order to control you. Even though most of the potentially prejudicial situations that you avoid would have been discrimination free, you still do not get to enjoy them because your own self-discrimination and fear prevents it. It is this type of discrimination that you have to learn to control, if you want to stop the prejudices of society from having a major impact on your life.
Just as developing the psychological tools necessary to cope with the prejudices of others is a long and emotionally painful process, learning how to deal with your feelings of self-discrimination is also an extremely difficult task. The first step is being able to recognize these feelings when they arise for what they are. You have to be able to see that your fears are stemming from your own feelings of self-discrimination, and not from something out in the world. The next step is the hard part. You have to be able to realize that your fear and anxiety is coming from possible, yet not necessarily probable, outcomes, and then convince yourself that you have no real reason to believe that you will be discriminated against beyond your own nightmarish thoughts. While this is a very difficult thing to do, if you can make yourself truly believe that your worries about being discriminated against are merely the worst possible outcomes and there is no reason to think they will happen, your feelings of insecurity and anxiety will instantly lose all of their power. Since self-discrimination has nothing “real” attached to it, once you convince yourself that your fears are just highly unlikely possibilities rampaging around your head, this once awful sense of dread ceases to have any meaning. You will immediately be free of your self-discrimination, and you will be overcome by a revitalizing sense of freedom that is beyond words. Now, this is not an easy thing to accomplish, but nothing worth doing ever is, and by learning to deal with your feelings of self-discrimination you open yourself up to a whole, new world of opportunities and experiences to enjoy.
Thanks to the enormous amount of vocal opposition to this unfortunate piece of legislation from all over the country, it seems like this most recent act of outright discrimination in my home state will be eliminated soon. Even though it looks like my hometown and the state of Indiana will survive these sad, despicable acts of public prejudice that have been wreaking havoc recently, the effects of this discrimination will be felt by those mistreated for years to come. Having to face these actual acts of discrimination, only makes your feelings of self-discrimination stronger and more difficult to cope with. In order to effectively manage and get beyond these emotions, you have to recognize that these fears, although extremely terrifying, are only figments of your imagination. They are only as powerful as you allow them to be. Remember that only a very small percentage of the people and places you come into contact with are prejudiced, and the vast majority of the situations you experience are wonderful and discrimination free. Take the time to slow down your thinking, regain control of your brain from your emotions, and see your feelings of self-discrimination for the illusions they are. This will allow you to eliminate these nasty notions from your life, and without these self-imposed obstacles in your way, you will be able to fully enjoy the happy, fulfilling life that you deserve.
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