I would be lying if I were to say that I never thought about a person’s race. In our current culture, in the culture in which I was raised and in the history of our culture we have certainly attributed aspects of a person’s character to the race they are a member of. As I have learned through experience this is not how we should react to people, but it happens sometimes on a subconscious level that we are not even aware of from time to time.
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio during the 1960s and 1970s. During those years there were racial tensions, as there were across the country. Those tensions made there way into our family and into my psyche in a way that I am not proud of. During those years the indirect message was that Blacks were dangerous. We called African Americans “Blacks” in those days. We also learned that “Pollocks” were stupid. Italians were associated with organized crime. Russians were communists. We learned to look at the nationality or race of a person in order to understand how to deal with that person. This is commonly known as prejudice, where you pre-judge a person before you get to know them.
So, before I was in High School I knew what “Black” people were like, before I had actually met one.
The strange thing is that my parents believed that they never taught me this. They were careful not to say anything about a specific group at any time. I have heard my mother tell her friends proudly that they never raised us to be prejudiced in any way. But, the truth is that they taught me these things by the way they reacted. We were careful not to drive through the dangerous part of town. And, the dangerous part of town was the part of town that was mainly occupied by the “Blacks.” They would tell me about something stupid that someone at work had done, and they would make the comment that their name did end in -ski. And, my great-grandfather’s name ended in -sky, so we certainly weren’t Polish. The funny thing is that we now know that he at least lived in Poland, but they still say that he was of German descent.
So, I got mixed messages in a way. I was told not to worry about race, because it didn’t matter. And, I was told that certain people behaved in certain ways, and we should be aware of those things. I don’t blame my parents, because they really thought that they were doing the right thing. The problem is that when you are raised too close to something like prejudice it is really hard to see the entire problem.
I was about ten years old when I met my first black person. It was a summer camp, and several “disadvantaged” children were brought to the summer camp. I tried to talk to a couple of the kids, but I feared them as well because of my prejudice. I didn’t know what to expect, so I listened to them more than actually interacting with them. I found the particular kids at the camp to be very boisterous. They ran around, pushed each other, used obscene language and were very annoying. I basically didn’t understand them, or what they thought was important. But, even at that young age I didn’t think that the problem had anything to do with their race, but with the way they were brought up. They told stories around the campfire one night after the councilors went to bed. And I found the stories littered with foul language, but also littered with impossible situations and a basic misunderstanding of the world the way I understood it. Those few stories stuck with me for quite some time.
I didn’t really meet any blacks for quite some time after that experience. When I got my driver’s license I traveled in larger circles and I found myself in the downtown area more often. While I was in High School I became interested in photography and I thought that I might find some interesting subjects in the city. I took a friend and we went on a “photo safari” one day. I was still a bit fearful of being robbed, or running into the “wrong” people so I remained cautious. And as I was walking down the street looking for potential subjects I caught a young black individual come a bit to close for comfort, so I quickly reacted by grabbing my camera, thinking that the expensive object might be the intent of the individual. To my surprise the young man jumped away from me and said, “Don’t hit me!” Obviously there was more underlying tension on the street than I had realized. These people were just as frightened of me as I was of them. I was a bit sad about this revelation, and I thought about it for some time.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I actually met and befriended a wide array of people from different backgrounds. My freshman year I met a black guy that was extremely obnoxious, but as time went on I realized that he was acting out because he was fearful himself. And, as time went by he lost his fear and his obnoxiousness. I wish that it had not taken me so long to realize these things. I learned little by little over a long time that race wasn’t really a real issue. I believe that the culture in which a person is raised causes more problems than the race or nationality of a person. But, in many cases people pass the traditions of how to raise their children down from their parents and grandparents. And for the most part these methods are locked within a family and the family is generally locked within a race or nationality. But some families adopt other methods and ideas.
Some family traditions are “good” and some traditions are “bad.” For example, the prejudice that my family passed down to me through their actions is certainly a “bad” tradition. I know some families that believe that a college education is only for the males in the family. This is another “bad” tradition. These ideas are not race based, but that get passed down through the family much like the genes that are passed through the family. There are “good” traditions as well. Some of my friends had family traditions of playing Scrabble, charades or other games that lead to developing education oriented skills. And, there are certainly traditions that are neither “good” nor “bad.” One of the problems we face is that it isn’t clear which traditions are “good” and which traditions are “bad.”
Families pick and choose what traditions are important. They make these decisions based on many different factors. First, each parent uses the experience of the traditions from their upbringing. When the traditions of the mother and the father come from similar backgrounds then it is likely that both parents have experienced similar traditions and it isn’t a problem to decide which traditions they will keep. If they live near to their parents, then the grandparents will have a larger influence on the traditions that are followed. These are the general reasons for following the status quo traditions. But, when parents come from different backgrounds each parent brings different traditions to the table, and the two parents will determine which traditions to follow and perhaps create new traditions. If the parents come from different religions, some tradition of how to unify the idea of religion in the minds of children needs to be considered. If the parents come from families that have different ideas about education, then some compromise needs to be made. Parents with poor experience with regard to education may determine that education is a waste of time. Parents with a good experience will encourage the children by pointing out the importance of education. These differences play out on a daily basis when the family is making time for after school activities and homework. Should a child miss homework or a game when the two come into conflict?
Even beyond this the personality of a family is sometimes passed on to the next generation. When politeness is highly valued the children are demanded to be polite. When humor is rewarded the children desire a need to be humorous. When “children should be seen and not heard” is the family motto, then children grow up to be quite and perhaps shy. These attitudes go to school with the children and some of these personalities do better in school than others. Families that listen to each are bound to demand that the children listen to each other. And, the value of listening is apparent in the school environment.
If you think about all these possibilities, then it becomes obvious that some races might actually do better in school than other races. But, it isn’t because of the race that they do better. Instead it is because of the tradition that is passed down from their parents. The tradition might have a lot to do with the culture in which the family exists, but the traditions followed in the raising of the children are actually the key. If you start with a tradition of slavery 150 years ago, there are about 5 generations in which slave traditions could change to other family traditions. That would be assuming that suddenly former slaves would suddenly realize that they had freedom and they chose to use it to make life for their family better. The traditions might be to begin a tradition of amassing capital, making sure that the youth are educated and understanding what rights they are entitled to. The reality of the situation was that there was only a short time that African Americans had the opportunity to begin any of these traditions before segregation began to take hold in the South. Segregation was the systematic denial of these things to the former slaves and their offspring. Segregation forced the African Americans to continue traditions of staying quiet and ignoring the oppression of the former slave owners and other whites mainly in the Southern United States.
Another hundred years, or about 3 generations passed before the civil rights marches of the 1960s broke many of the laws put in place to continue to oppress the descendents of the slaves. This continued oppression managed to maintain the family traditions formerly passed down through these families. There wasn’t any tradition of education, creating and maintaining wealth or even voting and public service. Without a tradition in place it is hard to imagine how the tradition might spring to life on its own. And, even if the tradition would spring to life spontaneously in some places, it would certainly be the minority of families. And in the forty-five years since the civil rights movement we should be amazed at the progress that we have made as a country. But, we also need to realize that these ideas are certainly not as firmly grounded in family culture as it is in other segments of our society. But, it continues to be encouraging. But, on some level it could be seen as discouraging as well.
It turns out that as more and more African Americans are getting college education the usefulness of the degree is becoming less important in some areas. For non-science degrees the opportunities for furthering ones self is in decline. The pay for people with these degrees is certainly quite low. Considering the amount of money borrowed for this education and the return on that investment is very discouraging. The lesson learned and passed down to the next generation might be, “Don’t bother with a college education, it doesn’t help.” The seeds for the future are being sown by these experiences.
There is hope for the future though.
My personal experience with being raised in prejudice and hopefully shedding that weight is hopeful. I don’t know for certain whether I have shed my programmed prejudice. When I see people like Mel Gibson or Michael Richards racially lashing out, I have to ask myself if I might do the very same thing if I were to get angry at some idiots. I need to remember that all races and nationalities have idiots. It isn’t because they are a member of a race that makes them an idiot. Instead they are an idiot that happens to be a member of a particular race. There are some “bad” traditions that are passed down and learned, but it certainly has nothing to do with the race or nationality that they belong to. It does have to do with what these people are taught as children by their parents, grandparents or even neighborhood friends. If all of these people happen to have common experiences and common ideas it still has nothing to do with what nationality or race they happen to be a member of.
The best idea is that one should get to know the people one to one and not rely on a stereotype or racial profile.
Last weekend I was meeting with a group of students. I was helping them come up with ideas for their science fair projects. I met with each of them one by one, asking them what ideas they had and if they needed any help. Afterward, my wife asked me about what some of the students had selected. And, I didn’t know the names of several students, so she had to describe them to me. When she asked me what one of the students that was African American had selected I was completely lost. I didn’t remember an African American student at the event. Now, this either means that I am blind to race, or I just don’t pay attention very well. I am hopeful for the first.
Don't forget what Stephen Colbert said, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."
Cross Posted @ Bring It On