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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Melting pot: a concept not yet accepted.


I grew up in the 70's in a smaller central NY city of about 35,000 people. Our claim to fame was a maximum security prison in the middle of the city surrounded by concrete walls and armed guard towers. Near the prison was an industrial manufacturing area and about a 1.5 square mile area of people predominately of polish, ukrainian and russian descent. Three churches and several ethnic clubs for these eastern european immigrants and descendants were also within walking distance. The whole city is primarily blue collar, middle class with the normal smattering of lawyers, doctors and other professional types mixed in the the masses; the professionals lived on the other side of the railroad tracks.

What was interesting about our city was that it seemed to be divided by ethnicity rather than race. Back in the 70's the city was approximately 90% white, and 8% black. Most of the blacks lived within a specific area of the city, but there were really very few blacks in comparison to overall demographics. I never identified myself as white because my entire neighborhood was white when I was a child. Instead, we knew the ethnic background of every neighbor- polish, irish, ukrainian, german, italian, etc...

We didn't live in the "polish" section, however some of my extended family did. My Catholic school and Church and the heritage club we belonged to were in the "polish" end. I have very vivid memories of walking to my Babci's house after school and waiting for a ride home. My Babci spoke no english, but always had alot to say. As I could speak no polish outside of basic polite words and some prayers, I would just nod my head and laugh when she laughed. Most of my childhood friends belonged to the Polish Home or the Polish Falcons or the Sicz Club or the Ukrainian National Club, just as our parents did.

We always had plain food at home, polish or meat & potatoes with no special seasoning. We never had mexican, chinese, indian food, and in fact I can't even remember if there were any ethnic restaurants or deli's or bakeries that weren't eastern european or italian or german.

So our melting pot of a city didn't account for much variety. The most diverse population was most likely located within the prison walls. Despite this seemingly assimilated city, I certainly heard my fair share of degrading "polock" jokes from many people, some of whom even claimed to be friends. And though I cannot remember the specific jokes, I do remember being 10 years old and knowing that being a dumb polock was not a good thing.

But I never faced the cold derision of racism that is presented by ignorant fools with attitudes learned by ill-informed sources.

All through school, the small percentage of blacks or asians or even hispanics in our city faced some racism, as would seem typical of a small city America. Right or wrong, it existed. I grew up hearing things, seeing things, but I could never identify with the hatred. The differences between us had no value to me as a means of ridicule, but I know other people placed emphasis on the differences.

My move to Phoenix allowed me to meet my Rico Suavé, and with him a whole new world. Yet I found that bigotry extended far and wide, and the supposed maturation of times did not lessen it. My subsequent moves to Cali and finally back to the East Coast have matured me, but I am no less shocked at the closed minds of seemingly normal people.

I actually have a (former) friend that sent me an email a few years ago denouncing illegal immigrants and those of the hispanic descent. Yet she knew my Rico was a mix of mexican, native american, black, spanish and probably a couple other things. His family is not nor has ever been illegal. His great grandfather was in the Spanish Army. One branch of his family tree has been here for many more generations than mine has. My family wasn't here until the late 1880's and early 1900's, or there about. But some of Rico's friends were from families that were illegal. In fact, Rico worked on a farm picking grapes as a teenager, he said it was the most back-breaking job he ever had.

Rico grew up in a predominately latino neighborhood and remembers having to take the bus to the high school that was in the classier part of his city so the diversity mix met standards. And as a married couple, when we moved from Cali, we specifically looked for a metro market area that would be more open to seeing a latino in a professional position.

Now I live in a city of 434,000 people with a demographic of 70.8% white, 20.1% Black, 5.5% Asian, and 5.9% Hispanic. In fact, approximately 11,720 people report to the census to be of mixed race. I think I knew maybe 5 people when I was growing up that were considered Mulatto.

Our house is surrounded by blacks, brazilian, filipino, puerto rican, russian, asian and random european-descent white neighbors. I love living here. When we first moved here, Rico and I were excited that our children would have the opportunity to grow up in neighborhoods completely dissimilar to ours. We felt our children would have the chance to be friends with everyone without regard to color or ethnic background, or even class. Our children have made some great and diverse friends.

But the thing that shocks me is that in today's supposed enlightened age, I have met some people here, that are genuinely nice, and yet deep down bigots. Oh, they will tell you they are not bigots or that they are just joking, but I don't buy it. Some of the comments I hear are along the lines of "Jewing down" a price at the store, or that someone won't go to the oceanfront because it's "too dark" there, implying there are alot of black people.

I am sure this is indicative of alot of areas in the US, but I find it inexplicable and inexcusable that someone in 2010 can make statements such as these and others, and not have realized two things: they seriously hurt a segment of the population by reinforcing stereotypes, and their children hear and infer these comments to be valid.

While growing up, one of my favorite movies was The Point. A little boy named Oblio was born with a round head. Everything and everyone else in the world had points or pointed heads. At first, the parents tried to cover the round head with a pointed hat. Eventually, Oblio and his dog Arrow were banished to the Pointless Forest. Along his travels, he meets a rock man that tells him, "you don't always have to have a point, to have a point". Of course at the end, Oblio is welcomed back and is much loved.

Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could be loved not inspite of one's differences, but because each person's difference is just what makes one special?

1 comment:

Maryann said...

Hey, never would I criticize your inner thoughts. Believe it or not, they make much sense. I am very proud of you.