Taking Responsibility for Inherited Prejudice

It was an incredibly hot day and I was selling Jesus junk at a Christian bookstore when she came in. She had on a pretty, eggshell-colored sleeveless summer dress and she was asking about a Donald Miller book.

And from under her arms burst more armpit hair than I had ever seen anywhere. I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but it looked like she had a 1986-era Jon Bon Jovi in a headlock.

It quite literally made me nauseous.

Let’s be honest

Hopefully I am not going to reveal any secrets or give away any genetic spoilers relating to gender here, but her ability to grow underarm hair is just as natural as mine. Right!?

So why would I expect her to present herself differently?

As far as we can tell it wasn’t until the earliest twentieth century that American women started shaving under their arms. You’d be hard pressed to find many photographs of shaven women in the U.S. prior to 1915. Some credit Canadian-born filmmaker Mack Sennett to encouraging women to shave for swimming scenes in his films.

For whatever reason, it became the norm. I’m not sure why. Is it because men like to imagine that women exist in a constant state of prepubescence? I honestly wouldn’t be surprised. Many fashionable trends seem to perpetuate a male fantasy of feminine timelessness.

How culture shapes us

It’s obvious how culture would encourage us to choose one thing over another—even something that’s completely unnatural.

If you see something enough, you begin to presume that it’s natural—and begin to question things that are completely normal. It wasn’t just the fact that I was turned off by this woman’s underarm hair that surprised me, it’s the fact that I had an actual visceral, physical reaction to it.

This is how culturally conditioned I was. (This was nearly two decades ago. I’m much more sophisticated now—I hope.)

The problem with church culture

I see this same phenomenon constantly in Christians. The environment we grow up in dramatically colors the way we respond to things, but we don’t necessarily see how much we’re conditioned.

We assume that our responses to things are informed by our faithfulness to Scripture, but it’s often shaped just as much (if not more) by our background.

When many Christians approach poverty culture, homosexuality, feminism, racial issues, or any number of topics, their internal/physical/defensive/combative reaction is often colored by marinating in a self-perpetuating stew of prejudice.

It’s not your fault that your culture of origin colors your ability to be objective. But eventually it becomes your responsibility to be self-aware enough to question it. One way you do this is by becoming a student of your physical/emotional reaction. When your response is more dramatic than simple intellectual opposition, it’s time to ask yourself why.

Why am I having such a strong response to this issue, idea, or person? Why do I feel this fight or flight response welling up in me? You’re going to find that you’re perspective is colored by cultural group-think.

Have you ever found this to be true of you? Are there areas where you’ve discovered that your strongly held feelings were more inherited than earned? Leave me a comment and tell me about it.

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