I was over at DotMoms today reading a post by Robin about the war in Lebanon. (I can't get the link to work, but if you follow the first one an look for lessons in friendship you'll find it.) She is Jewish and wrote a great post about a conversation with her daughter about friendship and prejudice. It's good, go and read it.
I got me thinking about how we can raise our children without prejudice, and teach them not to generalize, or assume they know about a person from their race or situation before they get to know them. I don’t know how my mother did it, but I need to ask her, because I remember growing up color blind.
Somehow she managed to shield me from my grandfather's strong prejudice against immigrants, and my father's bias against Native Americans long enough for me to grow up and form my own opinions. Of course in small town Alberta there are very few people who actually looked different, so I may not have realized that the few people I knew who did might be significantly different from me culturally.
I remember two friends that I had in middle school who were East Indian, only I didn't realize it. I literally hadn't noticed that they were brown except in a sort of jealous because they were so pretty way. My friend Helen wore a traditional outfit to school one day and I thought it was the beautiful, so I asked where she got it.
“It’s a traditional costume that my people wear.”
“Huh, what do you mean your people?”
She floundered a bit and repeated, “My people, where my family comes from.”
I still didn’t understand so I asked, “Where did you come from?”
“Carrien”, she exclaimed, totally exasperated, “I’m east Indian!”
I replied, in total surprise, “You are, I never knew that.”
Then I wanted to follow her around even more, because she didn’t just look exotic, she actually was.
My friend Suzie was beautiful, her family were kind to me, even if only a few of them spoke English I never thought anything of it really, I liked her, I liked them. And I had never seen anyone toast bread on a stovetop before.
I remember some other girls in my homeroom were talking about a science project about hair. They asked me if I could think of anyone who’s hair was naturally curly because they needed a sample. I immediately thought of Suzie. I’ll never forget the way they recoiled and the words they said.
“Oh gross, I would never touch her hair, it’s so greasy. I bet she has lice or something.”
They walked away from me trying to think of someone else. I was shocked. I couldn’t figure out why anyone would think something so wrong and mean. I knew her hair wasn’t greasy, I knew it always smelled pretty, I knew she didn’t have lice. My 12-year-old self was completely confused by such gross inaccuracy.
At this age in Canada is when I remember social studies classes that dealt with stereotyping and discrimination; we are taught political correctness from a very young age. But I don’t think that’s what formed my brain to be inclusive of other cultures instead of xenophobic. I know many others who grew up in the same small town as I and attended, or slept through the same classes and are embarrassing to be around when they get on their little racist joke kicks. I think it was my mother. I think it was the Bible. Shocking I know to say that considering what is on the news about the religious right, and the loudmouth Bible thumpers claiming to represent the Christian majority.
When I was in grade five there was a boy who moved in with his family down the street from my best friends house, and we made fun of him. He was brown, though that’s not why we did it, it was his name: Ravosh Samari. It was so strange to us, and so we would make fun of it, usually calling him Rubbish Salami and giggling. We weren’t trying to be mean, it hadn’t occurred to us that it might hurt his feelings to be called that as he went in his front door everyday after school, we were just trying to be funny and we were stupid. (Totally off topic, but he grew up to be very good looking, hot good looking, and I never talked to him because I was so embarrassed about the name calling from elementary school.) There I am confessing it to you Internet, if it finds you Ravosh, I’m sorry.
My mom heard it one day. Later at home she casually asked me, “Why did you call him that?”
“Because it’s funny, because his name sounds funny.”
“Would you like it if people called you something you didn’t like because your name sounds funny.”
“But it doesn’t mom, his does.” I was getting defensive because I could suddenly feel that what I had done was wrong.
Once again, as she had done many times before and since that day, my mother pulled her Bible down and opened it. She turned to a page and made me read it out loud.
“…You shall love your neighbor as yourself, there is no other commandment greater than these.”
There was more discussion, and I never called anyone a name after that day.
Between my mother, and the scriptures she loved I grew up to value others and see in everyone someone of worth, though I admit it’s harder to find in some than in others. If I really believe, as the Bible teaches, that we are made in God’s image, how can I look at another in hatred, how can I consider some to be less valuable than others?
I grew up with hard sayings echoing in my heart.
“Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.”
“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”
“True religion is to feed the widows and orphans.”
“Do not judge.”
“Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.”
“If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also.”
“But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”
Hard you might say, impossible, ridiculous. Maybe, but I know that it was trying, and failing, to follow these ideas that helped me to be the person I am and be able to identify with and care about people from so many different back grounds. Imagine what it would look like if more people tried the impossible, to think of others first, to forgive instead of seek vengeance, to love the people around them that don’t love them back.
I don’t claim to be successful even half of the time. But I think it’s something worthwhile to try, and to teach my children to try as well.