Friday, January 17, 2014

Fear and Loathing

I grew up in an area that was not racially varied at all. We were white for the most part aside from the five black kids we had in our school. Yes, they were all related. It is terrible but true. My neighbors were white. Most everyone in my town was Christian. We all went to church come Sunday. If you didn't go to church it meant you were from a bad family. The Catholics were into being Catholic. While the Protestant denominations were a little more relaxed, it wasn't much. Then we had Born Again folks who were scary. But it was a white, Christian place. There was a Bible study at lunch in my high school one teacher hosted. There were kids who prayed around the flag pole. In this scenario God only loved white Christians.

Since there were no outsiders, things could get a little hairy. David Duke probably would have been at home. I remember as a kid, I had a black friend. We played together and she is actually one of my oldest friends in the world. My area, while not racially varied, was economically varied. As intellectuals, my parents tried to enforce the idea that there were many different people in the world who didn't share the same beliefs and customs. Not everyone got the memo. I still remember word getting out that I was friends with Keyana. We were in second grade. One thinker said, "So you are friends with the jungle bunny?" I didn't even know what that meant but knew it meant something bad. Our noon time aid heard it. Other kids heard it. No one said or did anything.

While we had our moments, we knew right from wrong in that regard. A few years later another thinker called my friend Keyana the "n" word. Apparently, he thought it was okay to speak about people of color this way. My friend Erica thought this was disgusting. A lot of people who were from the right side of the tracks did. So when she found out he said it she hit him in the mouth. He never said it again. Looking back, the kids was from one of those poor white trash families. We have a street in our town that is kind of poor. Those people could all be on Jerry Springer. Poor thing, he didn't know any better.

In sixth grade we had to read Roll of Thunder, a book about segregation. The "n" word was used several times in there. During class we had to read aloud. At the time, we got this influx of group home kids from the inner-city in our classes. Inner-city was code word for black. Anyway, this Howdy Doody looking kid was reading and it came to the "n" word. He didn't know what to do. The black kid from the group home made  a gesture that he would cut the kid's throat if he said it. Our teacher said it was just a word in a story. The kid blurted out, "And he said 'you n word'" and the class laughed. The kid got to accept his white guilt and he got to avoid being beaten up by the group home kid. It all worked out.

The area that was accepted was Anti-Semitism. Around seventh grade it became acceptable to make Jewish jokes. I remember one went, "How do you ask a Jewish girl for her phone number?" You roll up her sleeve. It became common place for someone to be called Jewish because they were perceived as cheap. Or when someone felt you were ripping them off they would accuse you of "Jewing" them. Our teachers heard this hate speech on the regular. Some of them used it as a lesson to educate about prejudice. Others blamed South Park, a popular TV show at the time. Then there were those who laughed along with the terrible jokes.

The adults around us shared those views actually. Growing up I knew adults who said Jew were clannish, that they stuck together only taking care of their own. They also said Jews invented bargains and rebate as a way to control the majority. Looking back, these opinions had no weight or truth but there were some who accepted them as truth. Then a woman I know regularly talked about how "Hitler was on to something and missed a couple" in his quest to cleanse the world of the Jewish population. I don't know what was worse, that she felt this views were based anywhere in reality or that there were people who excused her.

My early exposure to Jewish people was small. We had one Jewish kid in our school who got picked on for being Jewish. His father, in order to get it to stop, spoke to the classes. He was a nice guy actually, and it did ease some of the tension in the air and the ignorance we harbored. However, the previous exposure many had to Jews in our town had in fact been negative. One woman, a former Catholic and Jewish convert, was angry her children had to sing Christmas carols in school. She sued the district. The lady was nuts. But the damage had been done. We were no longer allowed to sing carols and her kids became the target of endless bullying. We knew her son, he was actually quite sweet. He couldn't help his mother was crazy. Still, it had been put in the air. Jews wanted to kill Christmas and that was what was in the water. Matters were made worse by a music teacher in our school who decided rather than a Christmas recital he would put on a Hannakah show. This went over like a fat cat with the parents and he was forced into retirement.

Our biggest overall complaint growing up was being forced to learn a language. Colleges required it. A lot of folks elected to take Spanish because it was easy. However, a lot of teachers would tell us it was the way to go because Latinos were becoming a huge minority and Spanish was becoming a second language. The white kids didn't want to hear this. At the time, there had been an illegal immigration crisis in the country. One Einstein said, "Why don't they just learn the language? It would be better than those boarder bunnies having babies and us having to learn theirs."

During one lesson, I think it was eighth grade, a kid pointed out that it was "Oh say can you see?" Not "Jose can you see?" and therefore it was a waste of our time to learn Spanish. Oh and then there was the joke of "Imagine thinking in that language. No wonder they have so many babies." Now I know what hell is. Teaching foreign language to middle school students. Either way, it spoke volumes not just about my town but much of America.

Then I was told if I dated outside my race no white boy would want me, and my partner would leave me with a child and beat me. That if I dated and married a Jew he would make me give up Christmas. That if I dated a Spanish dude he only wanted a greencard. This was all pretty bad actually. Oh and the attitude about Arabs after 9/11 was that they were all terrorists and could not be trusted. And that all they wanted to do was spread Allah's word and blow up planes.

Upon moving to New York I discovered people dated in all races interchangeably and peacefully. Men of all colors stepped up to be dad's to their children, and dead beats came in all colors, including mine. There were Jews who were cheap and clannish. However, there were also Jews who were fun, open minded, and were generous friends with good hearts. Like everyone, they cherish their customs. However, some were raised both Jewish and Christian, having both a tree and a Hannakah bush. Then of course there are the Spanish folks. Some Spanish men are Don Juans looking for a green card. But then there are others who in fact do want true companionship. Some come into this country illegally and want to suck the resources. However, there are some who also want to work hard, making their way struggling as they fight the good fight for their square on the America quilt. They are trying their best just like my rels did once upon a time. As for the Arabs, many work hard and want to be good Americans just like my family members were once upon a time.

One thing age and wisdom has taught me is that we are all people. We want the same things and for the most part want to be left alone. Exposure has taught me assholes come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Idiot speak is universal. So is honest, hardworker speak. Actually, come to think of it there is nothing to be scared of. For the most part we are boring.

I Came, I Saw, I Sang: Memoirs of a Singing Telegram Delivery Girl

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