Trying to make sense of the hatred in the world, all parts of the world, I have to take some responsibility and look inside myself to see my own prejudices and figure out where they come from. I don’t consider myself prejudiced, but I am. I’m prejudiced now in different ways than I was when I was a a child, a teenager, a student, a wife and mother, an adult.

As a child of the 1940s and 50s, I don’t remember hearing anyone in my family say anything hateful about people of another race. We learned the song, “Jesus love the little children,” with it message of loving all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white. That is ingrained in me too. Of course, we didn’t see many people of other races or cultures here in Oklahoma. The only African American people I knew were called Negroes and they worked for us at home or in clubs or other places. We loved them, my parents valued their help and worked with them, and I only knew they didn’t have as much as we did and lived across town in poor areas. I wasn’t exposed to many religions other than protestants and a few Catholics until I was in junior high. I wasn’t protected – it’s just the way it was.

My parents grew up in the depression. My father was from Kentucky originally and his father’s family had owned slaves in earlier times. I don’t say that with pride, but it’s a fact that I have to acknowledge, cringing as I write the words. From what I can tell, and I hope I’m not making this up, my family were kind people in spite of this. My father’s mother’s family and my mother’s family were farmers and lived a very rough life. They may have been tough or beaten down, but I don’t think there were too many mean people in there. Maybe a mean drunk or two.

Another song that comes to mind is from “South Pacific,” a beautiful play and film about prejudice that I saw as a young girl. I also read Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific,” upon which it was based. The song is “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

I’m lucky my family wasn’t crawling with hatred that they passed on to me.

Growing up, I was a pretty quiet little girl, reading a lot and hearing many things. I was also the kind of girl who would never hurt anyone’s feelings on purpose. If my parents taught me that, I thank them. To this day, at 70, there is nothing that hurts me more than to think I have hurt someone else by something I said or did.

There’s no way I can pretend that I don’t know all the racial and ethnic stereotypes out there. I’ve heard all the jokes and laughed at them stupidly, although never in the presence of someone who would be hurt by them. Like that isn’t just as bad, playing to the prejudices of others. I cannot honestly say that I don’t have those horrible stereotypes or feelings ingrained enough in me and that they don’t come to the surface when I meet someone new or see someone on the street. They range from being uncomfortable with the handicapped to thinking through all the implications of someone’s color or nationality to dumb blondes and stupid rednecks. I’m pretty universally prejudiced, I guess.

I hate that I’m writing this, hate that I’m putting this all out there, but it’s true. Maybe I’m justifying it, but I have to give myself a little credit, too. My parents traveled with us and introduced us to many types of people. There were always lots of magazines around and I read them all, locking away all kinds of information that challenged the other things I’ve read. My mind is a mishmash of the bad and good things about people.

I’ve learned that the best way to overcome the things you fear is to meet them head on. This includes meeting people, putting a face with the prejudice that lets you put it all in perspective. I’m not perfect, but I can honestly say that I have friends from almost all races, if I’ve had the pleasure of being introduced to them. I have friends of every religion and belief, whether I agree with it or not. And, yes, some of them fit the stupid stereotype and remind me of why it exists in the first place. The good thing is that I have friends that I can talk to about these things. I can only imagine what their presupposed image of me was and it probably was as stupid as mine was of them.

Several years ago, my job entailed teaching a series of programs to 2nd and 3rd graders on diversity. The classes were developed by Mr. Rogers’ group and called “Different and the Same.” The different sessions focused on stereotypes, bullying, hate crimes, celebrating your heritage, and general kindness towards others. The classes ranged from all white students to a diversity of white, Hispanic, Native American, African American and all blends. They were vocal about the things they had been taught at home, but they soaked up the lessons and understood everything we were trying make them think about. This may have been the most important work I did in my life and certainly something I’m very proud of.

The answer to my self analysis is that we have to keep working on these issues throughout our lives. We can’t give in to our fears, rational or irrational, about other people. We have to keep reaching out, meeting people, learning, and making the effort to see the world through the eyes of others. We have to understand that most of us want the same thing for our children and those we love, a safe home, education, love. We’re not really that different under the skin, are we?

I don’t know how we teach compassion and empathy. I don’t know how we teach people to love. All I know is that we have to keep trying. If not, what are we?

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