I believe that I learned acceptance and brotherly and sisterly love from racists. It doesn’t make any sense to me either, but let’s start from the beginning.
I am white. I’m so white I don’t even use the “nude” face cream (nude being the cosmetics color that only applies to naked white people). I use what they call “ivory.” I grew up believing my ancestors were all from Norway, Sweden, England, and Germany. I don’t have blond hair and blue eyes, but my ancestors were Protestants and Mormons. Very white.
My parents taught me to hate racism. To love my brothers and sisters. “We are all brothers and sisters in God.” I believed them.
Then my little sister went to the prom with her friend. A black friend. “That’s just fine,” they said at the dinner table. I nodded. “As long as she doesn’t marry one,” said my mom.
What did she say? “It’s fine if they go to the prom, as long as she doesn’t marry one.” One? One what?
I still don’t understand how they hid their prejudice for so long. But they did it long enough for me to believe them and to believe better myself.
Fast forward fifteen years, and I have a home. My lawn is hard clay, filled with weeds and dirt patches and flooded areas. I’ve hand-aerated, I’ve seeded, I’ve fertilized for two years. No change.
In the mail, there’s a green flyer. “Hello, Spring 2006 is here. We hope you had an enjoyable winter. My name is John.” He doesn’t realize it’s spring 2007. I wonder if he’s cheap.
The next paragraph begins in all capitals. It reads, “OUR ENTIRE CREW IS AMERICAN, BORN AND BRED ON LONG ISLAND.” What was that? I read on. “We all speak fluent English. We are polite and courteous and,” now those capital letters again, “HONEST.” I skip to the final declaration: “HIRE THE COMPANY THAT HIRES YOUR SONS AND DAUGHTERS INSTEAD CHEAP ILLEGAL LABOR!” Exclamation point. Missing word.
What’s the message here? His entire crew is American, born and bred on Long Island. That makes them honest, as opposed to . . . the dishonest Hispanics that cut my neighbor’s lawn, who, by the way, must be illegal and underpaid since they apparently weren’t born on Long Island.
Something I neglected to mention before about myself is that I recently made a discovery about my ancestry. I’m Irish. Very Irish. For some reason, my family hid that. Maybe because they were discriminated against when they immigrated. They had some trouble getting jobs. They were poor. They may have even been . . . Catholics. Don’t tell anyone.
So suddenly, last March 17th, I found myself at work not wearing green and laughing, thinking, “Oh yeah, I’m Irish!”
Well, obviously, all my ancestors were immigrants. My guess is that “John” the lawn service provider isn’t descended from the Shinnecock, Nesaquake, Merrick, Canarsee, Manhasset, or Montauk tribes of Long Island. His ancestors are probably from England or Italy, or maybe Sweden or even Ireland like mine.
I do believe we’re all brothers and sisters. It’s not a God thing. But John and the non-Long-Island born, my Irish sisters and I, my sister’s prom date, we’re all immigrants. I learn from all of them. I even learn from the racists. They make me mad sometimes, really mad. But they help reaffirm my belief in equality.
And I’m glad they make me angry.
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