I was born into privilege without having a clue what it was, much less what it meant. My parents were, by appearances, middle class. Although, I think they were, more often than not, living half a step ahead of their means in trying to shelter, feed and clothe five children. Still, I never wanted for anything that might have left my health or life in danger.
I was born into prejudice and even outright bigotry.
To this day, I feel certain that the creators of Archie Bunker patterned that character after my father. He never failed to slight another person based on ethnic background or religion. Most of the time he wasn't trying to be mean. Sometimes he was, but by and large he was simply ignorant when it came to relating to the differences in his fellow man. Even as a small child I would wince when I heard him referring to a neighbor as "that dumb Hollander", or any Native American he happened to meet as "Cochise", or (and it hurt my heart as much to hear it then as it does now) referring to blacks using that horrible "n" word. The list could go on - he had a pejorative for every group.
I always wanted to ask him, "What did they ever do to you?" Wanted to, but never did. Those were different times half a century ago.
My mother was more passive and went the route of quiet prejudice. She was the kind, respectful woman who would simply go out of her way - crossing the street, ducking into a shop, etc. - to avoid (in her mind) questionable people. I saw this happen a number of times with black people, but I also saw it happen with gypsies when we were in Hungary together, and with homeless people in Washington, DC. Once, when we were lost in Baltimore, I pulled to the side of the road to ask a man for directions. He was black. As I rolled down the window she whispered, "Shouldn't we just go to a gas station?" I shot her the don't-be-absurd look and hollered, "Hello... excuse me, sir!" The man ambled over to the car, I explained where we were trying to go. He gave me great directions. I smiled and said thank you, and he replied with, "Have a fun time in Baltimore!" We went on or way. Like humans do.
I wanted to ask her, "Don't you understand what your fear is doing to you?" Wanted to, but never did. She was my mom and she was a nice lady.
I'm as white as white can be. My heritage is Irish Hungarian. I get a sunburn if I stand next to a nightlight. I grew up in a predominately Dutch community filled with fair-haired, blue-eyed children, where the rally cry of the day was, "If you ain't Dutch, you ain't much." As a good Irish Catholic in a Calvinist neighborhood, I always felt a little ashamed of my lack of Dutch and grateful that at least my looks blended in. Because I didn't understand what the big deal was, even when a friend told me I was going to Hell for playing outdoors and going to movies on Sundays.
I wanted to ask her, "How can your religion decide my fate?"
I remember watching coverage of the race riots back in the '60s. Anger erupted on the streets in Detroit, and Detroit was in Michigan, and so was I (albeit on the other side of the state). Suddenly, all that danger and irrational hatred, and fear and destruction, and unbridled vitriol was much too close to home. Mixed in with that were nightly images of the Viet Nam war. Mixed in with that were images of the Kent State massacre. Mixed in with that were a president being shot, his brother being shot, and a visionary leader who was trying to bring an end to the hatred and violence... shot. I remember asking my mother, "Why can't people just be nice to each other and get along?" She told me I was wise beyond my years, but that it just wasn't the way of the world.
I didn't understand then. I don't understand now.
I saw a post on Facebook today, something about how it's time to bring back the Hippies. No it's not. Hell no, it's not. The Hippies never changed anything. They did drugs and swapped STDs and left garbage in their trail. Then they realized that it's cold when you can't pay the electricity, being hungry sucks, not showering for days isn't very sexy, and sleeping in a musty van with four other people isn't all that fun really. So, they grew up, got jobs and are now running the country that everyone is bitching about.
Bring back the Hippies... I think not.
I won't proclaim that I don't see the differences in people. That's like saying you don't notice if an animal is a cat or a dog or a wombat. Of course I see differences. I see color. But I love it. I love seeing those differences. After growing up in a city where every kid looked like a cast member of Village of the Damned, I fucking love differences. I want to know about other cultures and traditions and join in the celebration. I want to know what makes people tick. All of them.
For nine years I was privileged (it doesn't have to be a bad word, does it?) to live with a man who was paralyzed and confined to using a wheelchair for mobility. I know a little about being on the sharp end of prejudice. It was there when idiot servers would look to me to place his order at restaurants, even though he was clearly all there mentally and could do it himself. It was there when people would look at him, then look at the able-bodied girl with him and you could almost hear them thinking, "I wonder what she's doing with him...?" If I was feeling particularly feisty and righteous, I'd size them up with my own look and whisper loudly, "I'm in it for the awesome oral sex." I'd see it when people would hug the wall as they walked by him, as if whatever put him in a chair was communicable. When he'd come up against barriers, especially in the form of attitude from others, he'd sigh and say, "I feel like a black man in the 1950s."
I never understood what the big deal was. I never understood why anyone couldn't see what I saw - a man with gorgeous eyes and killer wit.
A few years back I worked closely with a realtor who was from Iran. She would bring her Iranian customers to me. One day we went to lunch and I thanked her for her business. With tears in her eyes she said, "Oh no. The thank you is all mine. You are always so kind and respectful. You have no idea what we go through and how mean people can be." I looked at her, perplexed. "You mean, because you're from Iran?" She nodded. "People see our skin and hear our voices, and presume we are terrorists." I hugged her and told her I was sorry, and that I was sorry for the idiots who would never have the pleasure of knowing such beautiful people.
They were beautiful. I was honored to serve them.
I will confess, and this is a big one... I will confess that there was a time when I claimed to love gay people even though I was certain they were all going to Hell and that AIDS was probably their punishment for "deciding to be gay". Yes. I did. I was that person. Because I listened to an expert who told me that was how God felt about it. I was an idiot. I didn't do my own research and make my own decisions. It was a pretty significant lapse in judgment, and I swear it won't ever happen again, because I was wrong. I was so very fucking wrong. I didn't bother to do what I usually do when I encounter "different". I didn't bother questioning and learning. I forgot to celebrate the difference. That was thirty some odd years ago, and self-forgiveness has been slow on that particular score.
A quarter of a century ago (give or take a couple of years) two dear friends of mine decided to marry. Amy is white, Ricky is black. All I've ever seen were a couple of good looking people whose love for each other was something beautiful to behold. When I told a mutual friend that they were marrying, she clapped her hands and exclaimed, "I can't wait to see their babies! I can't wait until the whole world is the color of a latté." Sadly, that particular friend is no longer on this earth. If she was, she'd delight in the photo that Ricky posted today...
Because 50 years later, with everything I've learned, I still don't understand why we can't just be nice and get along. I'm not perfect - there are days when I wish everyone on the planet would go away. I don't leave my house because I don't feel like dealing with people. I've pretty much lost any naïveté I had when I started this journey, so it isn't that I'm deluded about the way things are. Not even close. I think I was born lacking the gene that makes my fears turn into hatred. Heck, I can't even really claim to hate spiders. They're really kind of cool - I just don't like having them near me.
What you want
Baby, I got
What you need
Do you know I got it?
R-E-S-P-E-C-T... sock it to me. Nah, sock it to the world.