In retrospect, discrimination has always existed and definitely exists today. Discrimination is a learned defense mechanism to create order from the perceived reality of our immediate community. Narrow-minded views arise when discrimination takes place. Any chance of progress in working together is stymied by our ignorance. We must learn about one another and appreciate each other for who we really are, not some perceived notion of who we are. Below are a few true examples of what I am talking about.
Anna, an elderly lady I used to visit in a nursing home, just immigrated to Pennsylvania from Hungary at the age of 20. She went to live with an uncle that could not afford to keep her. She had to work for living. A saloon hired her to keep their books. Anna was pretty and lent an understanding ear to men who wanted to vent their sorrows. Anna heard rumors spread from the regular clientele that she was loose, simply because she was an unmarried woman that worked in a saloon. One such client decided to act on this assumption. Anna was wiry, escaped his grip, dragged him outside to the back of the bar and locked him up in a chicken coop. She told the man that she would not let him out until he apologized for his advances in front of his wife. The man’s discrimination did nothing for the business of the saloon and likely ruined his marriage.
Brenda, my mother, was nine years old in 1950. She had moved with her mom, step-dad and three siblings to Hialeah, Florida from Sidney, New York. Up until then, Brenda had no exposure to racial conflict as Sidney is a very small town of little color to speak of.
Brenda was put in charge of her siblings while her parents went shopping for a living room set at the local furniture store. She was asked to stay in the car, but did not heed my grandmother’s instructions. She started to balance while walking along the curb of the sidewalk in front of the furniture store and around the corner. An African American boy was doing the same. Every time he would meet her on the curb, he would jump into the road and go around her. Brenda wondered what she did wrong that he had to jump into the road to sidestep her. She asked the boy and he told her that his mother said playing with white girls would only bring trouble. Brenda gained the boy’s trust, so they sat on the curb together and skimmed stones into the road. The boy introduced himself as Henry. Brenda and Henry talked for a while before Henry’s mother came out of the furniture store. She grabbed him by the ear, and asked him how many times he was told not to talk to white girls. She scolded him loudly all the way around the corner.
My roommate Beth and I took American Sign Language together in college. We were given the assignment to visit a deaf club that was supposed to be open to hearing people on Tuesday nights. Our professor was not given the revised schedule in time for us to realize Tuesday was the wrong night. When Beth and I arrived, looks of horror shone on all the faces of the club members. One young adult came to us and signed, asking what we were there for. We explained. She went to another woman and signed, “Hearing people! Yikes!” That woman came to us and signed that it was now Thursday nights that hearing people were welcomed. She asked us to leave.
2001 and Beyond
Gas stations and convenience stores owned by Middle Eastern and East Asian immigrants have been destroyed post-911. Many of these business people were American citizens! A gas station I used to frequent while my daughter was in dance class was forced to close down because of the ignorance of Americans who learned that Middle Eastern and Pakistani men were involved in the 911 crisis.
I was one of the last customers. I was having a little trouble with my pump, so I went in to ask for help. I greeted them with the Arabic greeting, “Asalaam aleikum,” which means, “Peace upon you.” The owner just cried and thanked me for not wanting to hurt or destroy his family and business. He was so thrilled that an American knew the greeting and meant it. He helped me with my pump and off I went. Two days later, the gas station was boarded up and closed.
In Anna’s case, it was a false notion of femininity that made a man think she was fair game. She, nor the owner of the saloon, would allow this man back into the saloon and the saloon lost a regular paying customer. Business could not happen because of an ill-informed belief that a young, unmarried woman working in a saloon was loose.
Reverse discrimination in Brenda’s case was the result of a terribly inhumane past history of the treatment of people of color based on archaic notions of superiority. Things have improved for the most part, though we still experience unfortunate uprisings like those in Mississippi and Maryland and the mass murders in South Carolina. Anyone of any race can enter any school, mall, restaurant, movie theatre, library, etc. without retribution. We can all sit together, use the same restrooms and water fountains without giving it a thought.
People with disabilities have long been misunderstood and were once mistreated or left in institutions to live out their existence. This, like racial prejudice, breeds fear and mistrust of others.
The old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is good advice. There are good and bad people of all races and ethnic backgrounds. We should not cast any stones at all people of Middle Eastern or East Asian heritage because of the horrific acts of a representative few.
Discrimination defines our relational boundaries. As feminine and masculine roles are evolving and we live in a multiracial society with people of different abilities and talents, it behooves us to let go of what is ingrained in us and use our curiosity to CONstruct successful working relationships rather than to DEstruct them. It is amazing what we can achieve when bias does not stand in the way!