A woman at a party once told my mother, “You know what they say about Cubans.” She had been casually espousing mildly racist comments all evening, the kind that usually turn no heads because they aren’t overtly malicious, and are spoken among friends.

This was around the time of the Mariel boat lift, when thousands of Cubans were pouring into America on rafts and boats and whatever else they could sit on and paddle. It made people nervous, to see all these strangers suddenly show up. Dissidents. Criminals. Foreigners. Many, if not most, didn’t speak any English. There was bound to be misinformation spreading throughout the country, especially to places far from the epicenter of the action.

My mother told the woman, “You’d be surprised what I know,” and walked away. They never spoke again, but no doubt someone told the lady what she may have figured out quickly herself: that my mother was Cuban.

Was this woman embarrassed? Remorseful? Indignant? Angry? Who knows? But what she said left a lasting impression on my mother, and on me through her.

The heart of what bothers me about it, to this day, is the idea that someone would fabricate an image of a group of people and then judge that image. Mock it. Revile it. Even despise it. People create a mold and then cast every member of a group in the same mold, as if humans are mass-produced like toilet paper or cans of soup. And so often, that image is drawn from the worst qualities possible, rendering this artificial archetype as an inhuman monster, the easier to shower it with animosity and disdain.

It’s a natural enough tendency. No doubt an anthropologist or sociologist or psychologist could explain its origins, trace it back to some early human survival trait. It’s easier to hurt someone you hate, right? Someone faceless, anonymous but imbued with traits contrary to your own values? And if you happen to meet and come to like a member of that group, well, they’re just the exception to the rule.

Sit down for a moment–or stand, or lie down, whatever you prefer–and define yourself. Think of all the things that collectively form your personality, your very being. List the various groups that you would consider yourself a part of. In short, make a mold of you. Now, pick any one of those qualities or groups–smart people, say. Are all other smart people like you? Are they all smart in the same way, about the same subjects?

Keep going down that list. Are all blonds the same? All blacks? All liberals? Conservatives? Doctors? Bankers? Men? Women? Consider that, for each group you self-identify with, for each trait you think you have, there are people out there who have a certain perception of what that means and, very likely, that perception doesn’t describe you at all. Or if it does, then it doesn’t describe your good buddy who also belongs to that group or shares that trait.

Next, think about all of the preconceptions you hold about certain groups. But MINE are different, you say. MINE are true. MINE come from experience, or research, or stories friends have told me, or something I saw on TV or read in the paper. Sorry, but no. Unless you are prepared to acknowledge that you are like every other member of every group to which you belong, you must accept that the same diversity is true of other people. That, in short, everyone is different.

Obvious? Maybe. And yet every day, people make statements and decisions that are based on ignoring this simple fact. Sometimes, it’s not a big deal. It can even be positive. The problem arises when preconceptions are used to demonize a whole group of people, to strip them of their essential humanity and turn them into a faceless enemy that needs to be fought and destroyed.

As I said, it’s a natural tendency. People do it without thinking all the time. I do it. You do it. But THAT DOES NOT MAKE IT RIGHT. And maybe you can’t stop yourself from thinking those kinds of thoughts, but you can have second thoughts, and third thoughts, to counteract the first ones. More importantly, you most certainly can stop yourself from acting on the initial, bigoted thoughts. And that is what this movement is about.

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