Vail Daily column: Things we must not pass on
Parents say the darnedest things.
“You know how ______ people are.” In the blank my mom inserted any manner of people she possessed strongly held stereotypes about: Poles, Jews, Italians, Protestants.
When I responded, “No, Mom, I don’t know how ______ people are,” she shot me a look that blended exasperation with incredulity, as though her observation was widely held or universally accepted.
My mother was born at the beginning of the Great Depression. America at that time was still stratified based on ethnic identity. People we now generally lump together as plain old white people were subdivided based on religion or country of origin. Limited contact with other groups often lends itself to sweeping generalizations.
World War II went a long way to changing that. My father, stepfather, father-in-law and all of my uncles served in the military during the war. They were thrown into units with other young men from across the country. What many of those men had in common, in a country still limping out of a depression, were childhoods lived in times of dearth. During shared hardship and danger, the old distinctions began to diminish and lose their significance. E Pluribus Unum inched closer to reality as a result of that shared national experience. Left out of that kumbaya moment — black Americans.
THE RACIAL DIVIDE
That is not to say they did not do their part in WWII — they did. The Tuskegee Airmen, the Red Ball Express and the 761st Tank Battalion were segregated units that performed valorously during the conflict. More than 100,000 black Americans served in segregated units during the war and then returned to a segregated America. Just as the old ethnic stratifications began to disappear, the black and white racial divide became more entrenched.
In 2008, when he was running for president, candidate Barack Obama referenced his grandmother who he said sometimes uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that in his words, “made him cringe.” He went on to say that his grandmother was a “typical white person, who if she sees anybody on the street she doesn’t know, there’s a reaction that’s been bred into her that doesn’t go away.”
Echoing this sentiment, in an interview with the BBC in 2013 to promote the movie “The Butler,” Oprah Winfrey was quoted as saying, “There are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism, and they just have to die.” By the way, Oprah never said, despite rampant claims on the Internet to the contrary, that white people had to die.
Is it nature, or nurture? Both Obama and Winfrey seem to suggest; “no one is born a racist.” Unfortunately, that may not be true. Studies indicate that infants as young as six months old perceive racial differences and children at 4 or 5 years old prefer to play with children of their own race. Perhaps we are born with a racial partiality that our upbringing either reinforces or diminishes. Psychological observation seems to support this assertion. Young children of parents with diverse social circles displayed less racial bias than children whose parents’ social circles were more homogeneous.
Even mild bigotry imparted to me at a young age planted the seed of bias. Today, while I can intellectually dismiss those comments, they are impossible to eradicate. The best I can do is recognize them for what they are, ignore them and not pass them on to my children.
Both my children were born in Asia and spent the early years of their childhoods there. There are very few black people in Asia. I was worried how my children would react the first time they saw a black person. When we changed planes in San Francisco bound for Denver and a black woman boarded our flight, my son, who was about 15 months at the time could not take his eyes off her. I heard her from half a dozen rows back remark, “That baby won’t stop staring at me.”
A few years later when my daughter was 4, we arrived in Denver and after taking the train to the main terminal, we rode the escalator up to the baggage claim area. Next to us on the parallel escalator was a tall, broad-shouldered black man. My daughter leaned in close to me and whispered, “Is he an astronaut?” We had recently watched the launch of one of the final shuttle missions with mission specialist Leland Melvin onboard — a black man.
My daughter is growing up in a world where black men are astronauts and presidents. I cannot take credit for my daughter being such a cool person, but hopefully I can take credit for not passing along burdensome stereotypes that prevent her from seeing people as people, instead of a limited collection of predetermined traits.
Maybe that is something all parents can do — refrain from reinforcing racial bias by allowing our children to discover people as individuals, rather than as labels.
Oprah is right. It is too late for me. I am just going to have to die and take my legacy stereotypes to my grave.
Claire Noble is the author of “State-Sponsored Sex and Other Tales of International Misadventure.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @thehkhousewife.