A friend recently wrote to me about encountering her first instance of racism directed against her, because she isn’t Jewish.

I started to reply with: “I’m surprised you’d find such prejudice alive and well in a Blue State, in the 21st century,” but stopped myself. How could I write those words? They’re a trite response that only someone who has never experienced discrimination, never been made to feel different and excluded, could write.

The truth is that prejudice is alive and well in the U.S. Until I worked at the Goddard Space Flight Center, I never realized how pervasive stereotypes really are, and how double-edged they can be. If a black person is passed over for a promotion, was it because they weren’t the best, or because they’re black? If that same person had been promoted, the question would still have come up: were they promoted just because they’re black? That’s a weight I would go crazy trying to bear; it’s hard enough trying to succeed in any field without having to wonder if your success is real, or being suppressed, or not.

I always thought discrimination would be something I’d experience from the outside, until I started telling people I was an atheist. I’ve had several people try to convince me I was not an atheist, because I’m too nice to not believe in God! One woman I told didn’t even know what an atheist was.

Now, I’ve not been spit on, or cursed, or denied a job because of my non-religion. But I have felt completely out of place, especially when people assume I’m a devout Christian just because I’m a white male. I feel a little like an unwilling spy, moving among people that would probably not even look at me if they knew my religious beliefs. I can still catch a taxi, but every time I do I wonder about those that can’t, just because their difference is easier to see.

Despite my “liberal” education, my own prejudices run parallel and opposite to the bias I encounter. Fundamentalists make me distinctly uncomfortable, and it’s normally hard for me to have a serious conversation with them without getting angry. If I ran a business, I wouldn’t really want them as customers. If I were choosing babysitters, I’d cross the devout off my list. The fact that the President of the United States thinks God talks to him scares the ever-lovin' sh*t out of me. It’s something I struggle with: to acknowledge their right to believe as they wish while I fight against every consequence of their beliefs.

What are your prejudices? When you call technical support, do you feel better if a man answers your call? If you’re white and enter a mall where most of the customers are black, do you stay as long to shop? If you’re an atheist, would you vote for a fundamentalist Christian?

Ron Toland @mindbat