“What kind of dog is he?” asked the older woman in the veterinary waiting area.
Bruce is a handsome “blue” dog. To people who know about such things, he carries all the mythical “coolness” of his blue color, and to people who don’t know about such things he is just a very handsome dog, whose kind eyes and demeanor do a lot to soften the blow of his title.
“He’s a pit bull,” I answered.
“But…he’s so nice…”
I was in a veterinary hospital in Eudora, KS with one of my dogs, Bruce Wayne. When I revealed that Bruce was a pit bull, the woman’s reaction is a glaring example of how little experience people have with pit bulls. With no first-hand knowledge, all they have to go on is what they’ve heard or what they’ve been told. They have an image of a generic, scary dog in their mind and, thanks to the media and politicians, this breed-less, faceless dog has received the title “pit bull.”
This reaction is not limited to dogs, but can also be experienced by their owners. People have an image of the “scary pit bull owner” in their mind: the gangster, the drug dealer, the criminal, the poor person, the trailer trash cracker, the vato from the barrio or the brotha from the hood. Because I don’t fit into any of these categories, when people find out I own pit bulls I get the same reaction Bruce did – “But…you seem so nice.”
Bruce Wayne and I are both flesh and blood contradictions, not to most peoples’ previous experiences, but rather to their preconceived ideas of what we should be. Many times we are peoples’ first and only experience with a pit bull and a pit bull owner. Because of the stereotypes that overshadow us, we have to go the extra mile– dress a little nicer, act a little better, and speak in a kinder tone— just to get a fighting chance at acceptance.
“He’s really not so bad once you get to know him.”
It is sad, silly and frustrating to have to placate peoples’ ignorance and paranoia just so you can go about your life as a normal, law-abiding citizen with your dog. But it’s downright repulsive to have to do this for your child. In October of 2007, Lynne Cheney was a guest on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Inevitably Stewart asked Mrs. Cheney about her lesbian daughter, Mary, and the conflicts of being a political conservative with a gay daughter. Mrs Cheney responded:
”Mary, who is such a good, honorable, decent person, has done a lot to make people who worry about somebody who is gay say, ‘Oh gosh this is a great person!’”
Hearing someone talk about their daughter in the exact manner I talk about my pit bull was an eye-opening experience to say the least. What a sad state of affairs when a human being has to go the extra mile to gain acceptance for her daughter in the same way I have to for my maligned canine.
The surprise that Mrs. Cheney describes in the people who interact with her daughter reveals the same tendency of people to form an opinion with little-to-no personal knowledge. When these opinions mix with a call to political action, people are willing to marginalize whole groups merely from their baseless convictions. Rather than getting to know who they marginalize and understanding the impact of their policies, it is safer to view individuals within the anonymity of a group. This type of thinking allows people to form an opinion without getting personally involved, and allows them to keep their distance from the situation. They can safely go about their lives without expending the energy and emotional capital it would take to really understand who is affected by their actions and how. Groups have agendas – individuals have names, feelings and families.
When you consider the rights of a group – don’t. Consider the rights of the individuals in that group. Instead of considering the basic human rights of “gay people” consider the basic human rights of “Nick” or “Maria.” If you want to make legislative decisions that impact people, use names instead of labels. At least have the decency to get to know someone before you judge them and claim the right to control their life. The funny thing about both of these situations is that many times people do have experience with pit bull owners and homosexuals, but just didn’t realize it. They just didn’t imagine that particular person in their life could be gay or could own a pit bull (or both), because he/she “seems so nice.”