Saturday, August 5, 2017

Prejudice

by Deb Graham

Racism is a hot-button topic in our society these days. I’m not sure why: I really thought we’d be at a place beyond that by 2017. I’m happy to report I failed utterly at teaching my kids about racism, just as my parents failed to teach me.

I lived for the first ten years of my life in a blue-collar town in New York, only seven miles from Niagara Falls. Quite a few residents were a couple of generations, if that, from the Old Country, wherever that was. I knew people had different backgrounds, and I knew that made them different. I learned our Polish neighbors made the best cabbage rolls. The Lebanese woman down the block was legendary for her paper-thin bread and baklava, and our German friends played music I didn’t hear at home. In my little-girl mind, I registered differences.

My parents neglected to teach me that other races were Bad or Less Than. I knew some people were not worthy of respect; lazy, cruel, mean-spirited people who wouldn’t rise about their raising, those who did not value their family, mouth-breathers who put sports or card-playing obsessions above their wives. They were Not Good People, and I felt the shame when I heard my parents speak of them.

But my parents neglected to teach me about race. At age ten, my family moved to a small town in Georgia. I learned it was where the Ku Klux Klan was established. The calendar insisted it was 1969; the people there acted more like 1949.  Segregation was in the rearview mirror, but not there. Signs reading “Whites and Coloreds” still lingered over drinking fountains and doorways.  Proprietors excused themselves with “well, I ain’t got around to repainting that wall yet.”  Mom was shunned at PTA meetings. It seemed wherever we went, we heard whispers of “Yankees. They don’t know their place.”

 School was hard for me. On my first day, I was faced with a classroom full of resentful eyes turned on me, children on the left, children on the right, empty row of desks down the middle. I was shy, and felt I had done something wrong just by walking in the classroom. The teacher barked, “Ya’ll take yer seat nah.” I slid into the first available seat, just to get away from those accusing eyes.

Before long, I noticed the teacher stood in front of the left side of the classroom, never glancing at the students on the right. Children from the left were always chosen to be classroom helper and office runner and to answer questions, as if the others were not even in the room. The only time the teacher moved to the right side of the classroom was to break her ruler over the desk of a child who'd committed an offense; leaning into the aisle to retrieve a pencil he'd dropped. Even then, she never spoke, as if the child wasn't worth the words required for a scolding.

 It finally dawned on me that the kids on the right side of the room were uniformly white, while the other side was made up of black children. Puzzled, I looked closer, to see what valid differences had caused them to be shunned like this. Both sides wore similar clothes, overalls without shirts, or cotton shifts, some barefoot, some in tattered sneakers with holes cut out for toes. A few wore dungarees, which I later learned was almost worse than wearing nothing at all. I felt terribly overdressed in my new plaid skirt and white blouse with rosettes at the collar. I kept my shiny penny loafers tucked under my desk.

Culture shock was awful at school, bad in public, uncomfortable even at church, and nothing we could do helped one bit. I learned never to speak up in class, because the teacher led the taunts of my Yankee accent. Reading aloud was torture. I could plan on being mocked every time. How was a little New York girl supposed to know how to pronounce "victuals"? I'd never seen that word in my life, and sounding it out was a disaster. The teacher screeched, "It's vittles, stupid girl! Vittles, like ya'll eat at home!" No clarity there; I still didn't know what a vittles was, Mom never cooked it for dinner. 

After the longest four years of my family’s life, Dad took a new job and we moved North, to a Chicago suburb. I think my first day in the new school was the first time I’d drawn a full breath in months.

I vowed that whatever prejudices I had witnessed and experienced would not define my life. And I determined to not raise my children to discard whole classes of people differentiated solely by accent, geography, or skin color. If you dislike someone, you have to get to know them enough first to make sure your opinion is valid, not just by sight.

Years ago, my young daughter was excited about me being Room Mother. Before my first visit to the classroom, she jumped up and down telling me about her new friend. Jill had the cutest little braids, she liked to wear yellow, her favorite item was a ruffled sweater, and she had a pompom on her backpack. I looked forward to meeting Jill, and getting to know the rest of the class. 

I chuckled as I politely shook hands with Jill later that morning. My little girl had neglected to mention Jill was the only black child in the whole first grade. That detail completely escaped her. As they've grown, I've listened to the way my kids talk about their friends. The old prejudices my Dad taught shine through, about lazy people or willfully ignorant folks, but they interact with other races as easily as they do with other age groups and hair colors, and I love it. 


I succeeded. Now, what’s up with everybody else?

2 comments:

  1. Awesome blog!! so true! We tried really hard to do the same with our children, and so far I think that it's worked. We watch movies that show prejudice and they don't get it. Thank heavens!! I'm so sorry you had to experience that as a child...sigh. Some day, right?

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  2. I grew up military so there was no racism per se and tho my parents were from Alabama they did not "say" anything but accepted any race friend I had. by the time we moved back to Alabama it was the 1970s and things had dramatically changed well at least in my high school and at UA. This "new" development of offended racism bothers me greatly. We HAD at much as is possible among 300 million people moved on, what happened?

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