For much of my childhood, I was blissfully ignorant of the existence of racism. Growing up in fairly diverse Southern California neighborhoods granted the opportunity to meet and learn about people of all races, ethnicities, cultures, and backgrounds, which to this very day, I deeply appreciate.
From pre-school until third grade, I truly viewed people of different races as being the same. Although there was a cognitive understanding of people having different backgrounds or physical features, it never seemed to matter. I had friends from a wide range of other countries, who often spoke different tongues as second languages at home, but I never saw them as being different.
Sure, some of us had different accents and physical features, but to me, they were simply my wonderful, silly friends. Similarly, no one ever viewed or treated me differently.
Life was exactly how it should be.
The elementary schools I went to during this time always did an amazing job of embracing and exploring the different backgrounds of their students. I believe their culturally-sensitive curriculum was of tremendous value because the kids I went to school with were very accepting and comfortable being around different types of people.
From hosting internationally-themed potlucks to putting on productions that celebrated various cultures’ dances, songs, and styles of dress, the schools I attended were quite aware of the need for early education of social issues. As a result, there were never any noticeable racial issues or general bullying among students. You never heard of anyone being teased for talking a certain way or having a certain type of appearance. Looking back, my early childhood was like a utopia.
Unfortunately, the time I spent avoiding the realities of discrimination and racism could not last forever.
My parents and I ended up moving to a small, rural Midwestern town halfway across the country when I was eight. The culture shock was jolting.
Corn fields for miles. Thick country accents that took me nearly a whole year to decode. Pig farms that stunk in the morning. Cow farms that stunk in the evening. 4-H Club. Red barns, white barns, new barns, old barns. Mosquitoes and wasps the size of your face. There were humid summers with days that seemed to last twice as long as a single day ever should. Meanwhile, there were white-out winters that would produce so much snow, kids might not be able to attend school for weeks.
Although this town was not technically located in “The South”, it always had a very strong aroma of the American South. Confederate flags were displayed and flown with great pride from the sides of houses or fixed to people’s pickup trucks. The only genre of music that seemed to exist was country music. Everybody knew everybody, or at the very least, were related in some way to everybody. And when “outsiders” moved into town, they usually never lasted more than a few months before moving straight back out; the townspeople weren’t exactly known to be the friendliest folks around.
Highly stagnant and deeply steeped in tradition, it was the type of place that people rarely “escaped” from. A family’s presence in the town could go back five or more generations, and the kid they sat next to in first grade would usually grow up to become their spouse. Despite the town having had a handful of affluent or “well-off” families, the majority of the residents were either poor or of very modest means, not necessarily educated, and very sparsely (if ever) exposed to people of different racial backgrounds and cultures.
The small country town in which I lived was and still is what many city dwellers and suburbanites might refer to as “backwards” or shamefully insular due to seemingly being suspended in time– a time that bred behaviors and attitudes that should have been abandoned long, long ago.
Perhaps the most striking of all, was the heaviness of the town’s air. There was a perceivable atmospheric difference between being in a larger city with more diversity and entering the limits of the town itself. For many years, I never recognized what this “shift” in vibe actually was. But as an adult, I now understand what that heaviness was…
Just by driving down the main street of town, you could actually feel how unwelcoming it was, which never made my parents very comfortable. In fact, we felt so uncomfortable living there that we scarcely lived there at all! Outside of me going to school and us residing inside of our home, very little of our lives actually took place in the town. We never felt quite comfortable running everyday errands there, so we’d make the forty-mile round-trip drive into the next state over to shop and socialize in a slightly larger town that was more diverse and accepting.
To Be One Of None
In addition to its many challenges, having grown up as the only non-White child attending school in a very rural town in middle America granted me countless opportunities to learn of and experience both the graciousness and ugliness of people. Many of these experiences have long since been reduced to unfortunate, but mostly benign memories of a unique and deeply educational childhood.
While it would have been very easy to internalize my early negative experiences with racial intolerance and allow it to cloud my perception of other people, I never did. I think it is important to recognize and remember that the actions or words of a few are never automatically representative of the whole.
Despite what some people may want others to believe, all members of any particular racial group are not inherently and automatically racist. This narrative is not only harmful to the cause of working towards greater equality for all, but grossly inaccurate, as some of my stories may help demonstrate.
As I share stories of my time growing up in this town, I truly hope that you, as their reader, might allow yourself to imagine being in similar situations. Imagine what it might feel like to watch your own child be heckled and bullied simply for being who they were naturally born to be. I also hope that you notice the instances in which some of the townspeople actually did the right thing, despite what might have been preached or expected of them.
In order for us to learn how to properly confront racism and discrimination in a realistic and lasting way, we must all develop a stronger sense of empathy for others and their personal experiences. It can be difficult to comprehend the gravity of a situation unless it has personally happened to you, but by taking time to consider what it might be like to walk in someone else’s shoes, you can relate to them more.
So though some of you may thankfully never be able to fully understand what it is like to endure racism, being able to identify with the basic humanity of others and truly see the damage racism’s effects can have on its recipients may encourage you to take steps in your own corner of the world to help stop it.
© C.M. 2020 All Rights Reserved
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