Recently, I was preparing to teach one of my college classes and came across an interesting story about Charles Darwin. He was about to go to sea aboard the HMS Beagle, but the captain, Robert Fitz-Roy, didn't want Darwin on his ship. Why? The captain didn't like Darwin's nose--it was the wrong shape. Fitz-Roy believed that one could tell a lot about a person's character by observing the shape of ones nose. Apparently, Darwin's nose pointed to a character flaw, and Fitz-Roy didn't want to take any chances with having someone on board with an apparent moral deficiency. The captain's theory was as incorrect as determining the value of a person based upon the color of the person's skin or sex. Interestingly, Darwin and his nose were born on the same day as Abe Lincoln who had to deal with using the color of a person's skin as an indicator of ones worth.
The prejudicial captain with a nasal hang-up finally relented, and Darwin sailed off aboard the Beagle with his less than perfect nose. For five years as an unpaid scientist researching fauna and flora on the Galapagos Islands, Darwin discovered some troubling findings. He had begun his voyage accepting the Genesis story of creation. Darwin was after all an Anglican priest prior to becoming a scientist. While gathering information on the Galapagos Islands, he discovered that the biblical account of creation couldn't be correct. (Of course, the Bible wasn't meant to be a science textbook, but one of theology--a fact still missed by many today.) Darwin's findings forced him to begin formulating what was to be called the Theory of Evolution. After returning from his voyage and completing the formulization of his theory, he sat on the work for twenty years. He feared reprisals against him and his family since it seemed that he was refuting the Bible.
Darwin intended to wait until after his death before allowing his theory to be published. However, he got wind that another scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who was preparing to publish a similar theory regarding evolution, which he developed while researching in the Amazon rain forest. Not wanting to be preempted by Wallace, Darwin reluctantly published his two-decade-old theory. It is an interesting historical irony to realize that Darwin could have missed the boat twice in his life because of senseless discrimination based upon his nose and knowledge.
All discrimination is carried out in a two-fold manner: overtly and covertly. Both forms must be recognized and dealt with. The overt variety discriminates based upon race, religion, sex, ethnic differences, or the shape of the nose. America has come a long way in breaking down barriers based upon these physical differences. While we have made much progress in the overt areas, we still have much to do to eliminate this type of discrimination.
The other form of discrimination is covert and is therefore more difficult to see. However, it is still discrimination and costly for all involved. We will soon observe Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. Our national observance is a time set-aside for each of us to remember King's contributions to tearing down racial walls that divided us. Our nation is a far better place for all peoples, thanks to his work. He successfully led us over very racially troubled waters and gave his life for that goal. In addition, this day allows us to examine where in our lives we may be still acting out of prejudice. Whether we discriminate directly or indirectly, it doesn't matter. Either way is costly to all involved, and it is wrong.
When we act on our prejudices, we affect people by keeping them from obtaining all that they can be. In addition, we can hurt people's feelings by making them feel less positively about themselves. However, we also suffer by not gaining insights or understandings from those whom we have discriminated against.
America is no longer the homogeneous and vanilla looking country that it once was nearly four centuries ago. Our country is a maze of different colors, nationalities, religions, and even different noses. We are a national kaleidoscope of peoples from around the world. No other country has such a blend as we do. America offers each of us the blessing of experiencing the vibrancy of our vast pluralism of people and thought. However, we can't enjoy that diversity if we shut out others because they are different. The differences are that which makes our national mosaic such a wondrous picture. Affirm and enjoy our differences!
This article appeared in the Dixon Telegraph on 1/4/01.