It starts at birth, when each new bundle of joy is wrapped in either a blue or pink blanket, and the gender based conditioning begins. Before anyone even gets to Kindergarten, the concept of sex is introduced and, perhaps more importantly, the idea of the “opposite” sex. In the binary system I was born into, that put basically half of the population on the other side. Even in these more enlightened times with gender identity somewhat less rigid, the construct still separates the individual from a huge swatch of people.
By the time I hit grade school, it was also clear that there were further divisions based on religion, which was really some form of Christianity. There’s some hazy idea of Pentecostals, who spoke in tongues, but didn’t seem to live anywhere near us. There was the Church of Christ, who didn’t use musical instruments in their services, while the Baptists had a piano and an organ, but couldn’t dance or drink. The Methodists and Presbyterians could do both. The Episcopalians, that highest of WASP denominations, could do just about anything except eat fish with the wrong fork.
Catholics, on the other hand, were a bit off to the side as they had their own schools. My fellow students were basically some kind of Protestant with a few Jewish children included for good measure. (There was one Muslim boy I remember, but I don’t think his family stayed long in Tyler.) The Christians divided themselves into different groups based, I now believe, less on doctrine and more on judgment (of each other, that is).
With the beginning of the seventh grade, I was introduced to a new group. Black children. That’s when integration began for me, and it would remain a pretty hot issue through high school. Division by race was so inherent in the system that it hardly needed to be mentioned, except for the occasional references to the Curse of Ham.
High school offered even more divides, as the cliques developed. Jocks, socials, and hippies (sometimes called “stoners”). Theater kids, band kids, and smart kids (who had been identified early on and segregated in “advanced” classes). Cheerleaders, nerds, and kickers (the “shit” was sometimes silent).
Leaving high school was another division. Those who went off to school, those who stayed and went to the local junior college, and those who went to work.
Oh, by the way, I had that gay thing going by then, so having more than a passing understanding of all of this was more self defense than sociological exercise.
Arriving at college, one of the first decisions was whether or not to “go Greek.” (Personally, I thought I already had.) There were four fraternities on campus, and going through “rush” was something I decided to do. But about halfway through, I decided it would be better to keep my options open, so to speak, so I dropped out. It proved a wise decision for reasons I’ll not disclose here.
Moving into the world, I jumped into the decidedly male gay community, which divided itself (somewhat unequally) into tops and bottoms, butch ones and nellie ones, leather queens, and all the rest. When the lesbians came forward for inclusion, they rightly got equal billing. (Some might say top billing since the abbreviation “LGBTQ” starts with “L.”) But inclusion is a bit different from integration (in its truest meaning), as those with lower billing might attest.
As I got older, my crowd of Baby Boomers ceased to be the new kids on the block, and the Gen Xs and Millennials came along. Add the G. I. generation, the silent generation and the Gen Zs, and we have adults living today from across six generations, making the Generation Gap of the ‘60s seem quaint by comparison.
When it comes to politics, there is another great divide. While the majority of whites go Republican, the majority of people of color vote Democratic. But setting that aside, there are deep divisions in both parties. Trump himself cleaved his party into his supporters and the Never Trump Republicans, or “human scum” as he affectionately called them. I guess saying you’re either for me or against me just wasn’t enough.
Democrats, meanwhile, have seemingly divided themselves into those who are undecided and begging to be persuaded and those who are very decided and begging for a fight—with other Democrats. Ever wonder why the jackass is the mascot for the party? Well, now you know.
Some of these divisions are visited on us; some are self-inflicted. Sometimes, we’re like a potato crawling onto a Veg-o-matic all on our own and reaching up to pull the lever down, turning something big and hard that would hurt like hell if someone hit you in the head with it into something sliced and diced into julienne perfection that you couldn’t feel if it rained on you.
So when I hear commentators say the country is polarized and politicians say they will bring us together, I have to wonder if they’re just naïve or downright delusional. These divisions didn’t start with Trump or Obama or even Bill Clinton. They started when somebody got picked for the Redbirds reading group in second grade, and somebody else got picked for the Bluebirds.