Sunset at Prien Lake Park

Sunset at Prien Lake Park

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Colors

I have always loved the musical production South Pacific. As a child, my grandparents had the album and I'd play that LP over and over again. I knew every word to every song and likely drove my grandparents crazy by singing along. Since then, I've seen the movie and several stage productions. The song You've Got To Be Carefully Taught implies that prejudice is a learned behavior. And certainly it can be. But is it solely? Or might it be partly innate?

For some reason, I recently thought of an experience I had in Pittsburgh. My sons were around two years old at the time. I grocery shopped at the popular Pittsburgh chain, Giant Eagle. Oh, how I miss those stores. In addition to being fabulous grocery stores, they have a true treasure for parents of young children. The Eagle's Nest! In-store child care. I would drop the boys off, be assigned a pager, and off I would go, blissfully shopping sans children. What a sanity saver! Anyway, one day I took the boys to the Eagle's Nest, and as I proceeded to sign them in and casually talked with the worker there, Andrew started to cry. Despite all those toys and video games, he didn't want to go in. I said, "Andrew, what's wrong?"

"She has a brown face," he sobbed.

Wow. Okay. I wondered where that came from. And then I proceeded to die from embarrassment.

I assure you, Andrew did not learn this at home. That isn't the way Bob and I live and we were careful not to expose our young sons to racial prejudice. But did we do enough to teach them acceptance and love of diversity? As I stood there, no doubt red-faced, I wondered if my children had ever encountered a person of another race in their short lives? Possibly not. Our neighborhood was caucasion. There were no black children in their preschool. We had no African-American friends with whom we regularly socialized.

Later on, I remembered a story from my own childhood. My parents were not racist, but like my own children, my exposure was extremely limited. As a very young child in the early-mid 60s, all I knew about African-Americans was what I saw on TV. It wasn't pretty. I saw protests, riots, and very angry people. I saw people getting hurt. I was scared. Of course, I know now, they were fighting for their rights, but no one explained that to me then. One day when I was around five years old, we drove on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to my grandparents' house. We stopped at a tollbooth, and the attendant was African-American. Upon seeing the man, I recall feeling fearful. But he was polite as he took my father's money. He didn't hurt us. He was kind. And I remember that day as a revelation. Not all black people were like what I saw on TV. Did my parents do enough . . .

Stunned by my son's proclamation, I apologized to the Giant Eagle employee. She could have been put off. She could have been insulted. On the contrary, she was gracious and kind. She and I conjoled Andrew and convinced him it would be alright. She took Andrew in, spent extra time, and played games with him. Shopping trip after shopping trip, she helped me teach my children that we are all human beings, equal, no matter the color of our skin. I don't remember that dear woman's name. But I will be forever grateful to her.

I had never lived in the South prior to moving to Louisiana. There's a notion, a reputation of sorts, that there's more racial tension and less ethnic tolerance in the South. As we prepared to move here, I wondered what the social environment might be like. I read statistics online that said Lake Charles is 50% African-American. Would I witness more racism and prejudice, I wondered?

Fortunately, this has not been my experience. I can't say I don't see any racism. But is there more here? Not necessarily. In general, for the most part, I have found everyone I've met here, no matter the race, to be very kind, friendly, and hospitable. Hopefully, I've taught my sons to treat other people, all people, the way they themselves want to be treated.

So, back to the original question. Does prejudice exist due to nature or nurture? Obviously it can be both, but I believe prejudice is primarily a fear of differences; a fear either learned or innate. Absolutely, children must be taught. We must teach them to overcome this fear, embrace diversity, and love all fellow human beings equally.

How did you learn love and racial acceptance, or how did you teach your children?

1 comment:

Jan Rider Newman said...

Angie, I'm so glad you blogged about this. I think you must be right about an innate fear of differences that tragically leads to distrust and prejudice. History teaches us that from the beginning of time human beings have demonized and de-humanized their enemies and those who are just different. I witnessed so much of that behavior growing up, and being a fan of South Pacific, I feel a gut response to that song. I've worked for decades to eradicate what I was carefully taught and wishing I hadn't been so well tutored.