Sometimes, it’s hard to practice what you preach. For example, I’m trying to raise my son to see people for who they are. Some people have lighter skin and some have darker. Some are taller and some are shorter. Some men marry women and some men marry men.
I try to talk about these things as if they’re every day truths. As if these are ideas I’ve always believed and always stood behind. But that’s really not the case.
I grew up in southern Maryland in the 1970s and 1980s. Although it was only an hour or so from DC, the lack of diversity was apparent. We had one Asian kid in our high school that was frequently mocked. And when we had exchange students visit our school from Israel, one of the girls in the school greeted them with, “Wow! You guys have Nikes? I thought you all rode on camels in the desert!”
We did have racial diversity though. My school was roughly half black and half white but it never seemed to be an issue. In fact, the environment felt very much like a “separate, but equal” environment. We did our thing, they did their thing, and everything was fine.
Yet, at home, I got mixed messages. My father would sometimes use the N-word, a word I never used nor cared for. My dad wasn’t a bad guy. He didn’t hate black people. He would simply get irritated with someone and view their skin color as the source of his frustration. And it was never to their face. But it was language we heard in the car or at home.
My mother, on the other hand, provided us a very different experience when it came to race relations. She loved to throw us into the most uncomfortable situations.
One evening, my mother decided to take us to a free film being shown at a nearby church. A little teeny tiny Seventh Day Adventist Church. We walked in to a room that could hold no more than 50 people and everyone froze upon seeing us. But they welcomed us. They put their fans down and welcomed all these white faces into the room. We felt a little awkward at first but soon we were all fanning ourselves and watch the movie alongside everyone else.
Sometimes, I’d accompany my mother on her Tupperware deliveries. Through Tupperware, she had developed a nice circle of women who loved having her over for parties and they frequently invited her back for social gatherings. It just so happened that they were very poor black families living in shacks up the road from the county jail.
It was certainly an eye-opening experience for me. But what I saw were cultural differences and socioeconomic differences but no differences based solely on the color of our skin.
Fast forward 25 years or so and things have changed.
My parents divorced. My dad has since moved south (mainly for the warmer weather). My mom lives locally and still visited that same my circle of women up until the matriarch of the family passed away a few years ago. And my view of the world and circle of friends has become very diverse.
But I drank some haterade last week while I was at Disney (DISNEY, of all places) and it bothered me.
Admittedly, the worst part of a Disney vacation is having to deal with all the park visitors.
Maybe it’s just because I always seem to go when there are masses of Brasilian cheerleaders throughout the park chanting incessantly. Or maybe I get irritated with all of the motorized scooters making it harder and harder for those of us that are walking. Or maybe I just get cranky.
One night, we were walking through Epcot and my son had gotten a little behind us. I looked over to him and said, “Evan, catch up to us, buddy!” In typical 7 year old fashion, he started towards us and bumped into a little girl (maybe two years old) and made her drop her toy. Her mother looked at him and yelled, “EXCUSE YOU!”
In that moment, I struggled with myself. The mother was a Muslim woman wearing a hijab. And seeing that made me feel like she was angry with us because we as Americans bumped into her child. I felt bitter and angry. And yet, I also felt embarrassed that Evan had bumped into a little girl, didn’t say excuse me, and didn’t pick up her toy for her.
My husband claims the mother walked directly into his path intentionally causing the collision. Regardless, she shouldn’t have yelled at my son and he should have had better manners. It was the latter I focused on and walked away.
But would I have felt the same way if it was a nice white lady?
A few nights later, we were exhausted and riding a shuttle back to our hotel. It was just after the park closed and it was standing room only, something that’s tough for an exhausted 7 year old. So I helped him sandwich himself between some seats so he could at least lean against the side of the bus and I stood near him hugging him.
At the next to last stop, a women sitting across from where I was standing suddenly yelled at me. The conversation went like this:
“EXCUSE ME but could you NOT lean against the basket on my scooter?”
“Oh, I wasn’t!”
“Um, yes, you were. I’ve been watching you and I’ve seen my basket move and I DON’T want it BROKEN.”
“My leg may have TOUCHED your scooter but I wasn’t leaning on it.”
“Yes, you were. That’s also why you’re not supposed to be standing there. That area is for SCOOTERS ONLY.”
“Shut up, you big fat pig. You probably don’t even need the scooter. You’re just too lazy to WALK!”
Okay. I didn’t actually say that last line. Some people had gotten off the bus and my husband encouraged me to take a seat. I was too angry so I simply moved to another part of the bus and proclaimed loudly that I WAS FINE AND I WOULD JUST STAND.
But that last line? I thought that in my head.
If we don’t say it, does it count? For me, it does.
I’m glad I can control my tongue and my temper and I’m glad I set a good example for my son. But it bothered me that once again, my anger focused on our differences. Yes, she was rude. Yes, she was obnoxious. But did being fat have anything to do with that? Did using a scooter have anything to do with that? (Maybe – I can’t confirm or deny her actual physical need for a scooter). I was embarrassed by where my thoughts went.
You are overweight and I am not. You are a Muslim and I am not. You are black and I am not. You are gay and I am not. When I’m angry, my anger, much like my father’s, focuses on what makes us different. And it makes those differences an easy target.
The longer I raise my son, the more self-aware I become. I’m determined not to let my predispositions become the major influence in his life. Instead, I’m hoping that the more I think about how I want him to be raised, the more it will change me into the kind of person I want to become.