I decided long ago that to fight racism, one had to live where the fight was the fiercest.
I didn’t start there. I started in the rural Midwest where there are no colors, or at least none that anybody talks about, other than snow white and harvest gold.
When I was young, I remember staying up way past my bedtime watching televised installments of the miniseries Roots. Shortly after that, I asked Grandpa where we came from.
“You come from Nebraska.”
“No, Grandpa. What country? Daddy told me you used to speak German. Do we come from Germany?”
“You’re American. And that’s all you need to know.”
Grandpa told me that he was born here, and that made him American. He did speak German in his house. But children were not allowed to speak it at school or they’d be beaten. Then one day he came home. He was 8. His father made a proclamation: no more German. Ever.
“I don’t know. But we did what our fathers said, and now do what I say and forget about it.”
I hit a brick wall, but I wanted to know more. I felt I couldn’t appreciate who I was until the truth was unearthed.
Several years later, others decided to dig up the family past. I learned we stemmed from East Prussia. We did come from somewhere. I was not just white bread.
I was hooked. I went on my own journey to get to know other cultures. I taught English as a second language. I loved fostering cross-cultural understanding and language learning.
But my message didn’t seem to be getting through.
I remember taking a group of Bronx teens to Broadway. We had 100 tickets to the musical Chicago, but just more than half decided show that day. They had never been to Manhattan, and many of the younger ones were scared even to place their orders at McDonald’s, because they feared the people at the counters wouldn’t understand them.
If we can’t get them to take a train across a bridge, how can we possibly get them to take a leap of faith when it comes to someone of a different race?
I have met a lot of students since I started teaching—of all races and colors—who either never knew to ask about their culture, because they have always lived here, or because they hit family brick walls of their own. So how do they find out about other races before the fight comes to them? How do we get people to recognize others as worthy of their time and attention?
We all see the boundaries. But if we cross them, that is where the understanding begins. That is what we all need to push for: moving outside our comfort zone and living where we are unsure. Only then will we see that everything we used to think is no longer valid. We have to change in order for us to change the world.
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