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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Prejudice Rears its Ugly Head

Sometimes I am taken aback when in this day and age I run into prejudice. I am optimistic, or perhaps it is naive enough to think that most people by now have learned that the color of your skin, the lilt in your language, the religious beliefs (or not) you hold don't really matter. It is who you are.

Tonight on the news I heard about a country club which originally were allowing summer camp children, who were largely black or Hispanic, to use their pool facilities, then, changed their mind. Allegedly, it is because of prejudice.

I don't know. I wasn't there. I can't speak for the managers or board of directors who made that decision. I do know, first hand, how insidious prejudice can be.

Last week, three of my daughter's friends were over at our house using the pool. They were discussing the fact that they can't get summer jobs. I was sort of smiling to myself that these kids are so insulated that they don't understand that their inability to get jobs this summer is directly related to a poor economy. If there are fewer jobs because people are spending less money and there is a large pool of adults in the area who have lost their jobs and are now willing to take low paying jobs, then teenagers, particularly those entering the job market for the first time are not going to find it easy to obtain jobs.

My daughter said she couldn't find a job because she doesn't have a drivers license. I snorted at that. Then one of the boys turned to another boy whose parents are Indian (as in Asian Indian, not Native American). "Do you suppose you're being discriminated against?" I stopped, startled. "Mrs. Q, would he be discriminated against?"

I took a deep breath. "No, not usually. Indians, aren't usually the target but then again, technically you're Asian. However, among extremists, just by the color of your skin, you would be targeted as a "mud person," as is my daughter, but she would be harder to detect with her green eyes, fair skin and brown hair." Most of the kids who were here were fair haired, fair skinned, and of German extraction, or at the very least Northern European.

I've run into it before. Quintana isn't a name readily recognized in this part of the country as being Hispanic, and certainly with my heritage being 1/4 Swedish and the rest a motley bunch of ethnicities stirred in the American melting pot between 1619 and 1870 I don't fall into the regular targets of prejudice. However, I have experienced it in very subtle forms.

For instance, the most obvious "minority" I belong to is the fact that I'm female. I remember going into a hardware store in Williamsburg, Virginia in the 1980s to buy a sabre saw. I was told to come back with my husband. When I was the director of a historical society in my mid twenties, I was told by a couple of people who were on the board "not to worry my pretty little head" about the leaking roof. Then there are the number of repair people, car dealers etc. who haven't treated me well, or treated me as nonexistent if I had a male friend with me, or fed me a line of complete lies just because they thought I wouldn't really understand how a car engine works.

Then, because my maiden name was Broberg, in Connecticut and Massachusetts I had several people apologize for serving me pork and had one woman call me to find out what one wears to a Jewish funeral service. Just because your name ends in "berg" doesn't mean you're Jewish.

When I started a neighborhood association and one of the things the neighborhood was concerned about was the rehabilitation of an old factory into an apartment building. A certain number of the apartments would be reserved for low-income tenants in order to get some Federal funding. Many of my neighbors said that they didn't want minority children playing on the playground.

I reminded them that my child was one of those minority children as she was half-Hispanic. I also reminded them that 68% of the school population which attended that particular school and therefore played on the equipment every day was classified as minority.

I also remember the day that a neighbor was bad-mouthing "those Hispanics." I reminded him that my husband is Hispanic. "Oh, but Carlos is OK, he's Spanish." OK, his GRANDPARENTS were from Gallicia in northern Spain, but that's a far cry from being Spanish and certainly he IS Hispanic.

I guess I was spoiled...although I suppose there was (and is ) prejudice in the little south central Michigan town I grew up in. I always felt that most people didn't care who your grandparents were, it was who you were. Granted, there was only one Hispanic family and no African American families.....there may have been some other minorities, but frankly, the town was pretty poor and only numbered 826 when I lived there. There was also the Pottawatomie reservation in town....Maybe it was how my parents raised me.

I don't know. I do know that denying yourself the opportunity to meet someone or learn about someone whose background is different than your own is a big mistake. You are the poorer for it.

Look at the sunset in the picture I opened this post with. You can't tell what color the person is. It doesn't matter. In the sunset below taken in Cut Bank, Montana, if the sky were only one color, what a boring photograph it would be. The drama which is in multitudinous shades, hues and the blends is what brings richness to the image as well as to our lives. My life, thank goodness, is not a monochrome.


Sunita said...

Bravo! Lisa, you've opened up a topic that most people are not comfortable discussing.Like it or not, prejudices exist and so does discrimination.
i think its because people seem to like putting those they meet into little mental boxes, neatly labelled with race / region/ gender. You know... female = scatter-brain, volatile, suspicious, etc., etc.
Your daughter's Indian friend comes across racial discrimination in another country; there's plenty of discriminatin in India too.Between people from different states, faiths, castes and even weirdest of all, between those of different skin colours!

Michigoose said...

What is that expression, "Fools go where angels fear to tread?"

I suppose part of bringing it up is that there were two issues (the news and the conversation at the pool) relatively close together.

However, certainly the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s has made great impact. I doubt if these kids would even have been talking about it before then.

Of course, the U.S. is a pretty neat place where such a mixed bag of kids and backgrounds can hang around a swimming pool and openly discuss this. With this, there is hope that on some day in the future this discussion wouldn't ever occur.