Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Prejudice? Or Cultural Jealousy???


   When I taught English the last two years in Worcester, Massachusetts at the start-up charter school, The Spirit of Knowledge, it was the first time in more than a decade I’d worked in an urban setting.  I instantly remembered how at-home the city felt.
   It’s some combination of the flurry of activity, the abundance of cultures, religions, foods.  But moreover? It was the refreshing “core” and power of my students.
   It persists in being a curiosity to me, just how comfortable I am.  I’ve lived for a quarter century in a rural hiccup of a town, and as far as my own race/ethnicity go, I am a vanilla puddle. Yet, my father’s second wife (my mother was his third) was of African heritage, so when I grew up, my two older half-siblings seemed woven of a richer fabric than I. 
   Meanwhile, before I’d reconciled this sensation, I had developed a racism-phobia. By that I mean, throughout my teens and into my early parenting years, I feared I myself might accidentally be racist.  At any moment.  In any situation. 
   Why not? I had learned to walk during the Civil Rights Movement, and grew breasts at the precise historical moment we all learned to burn our bras. 
   As a child of the Feminist-Hippie Era, being in any way chauvinistic or racist defied “my roots.”

   Then came The Bowling Alley Incident of 1989.
   What a rude awakening.
   First of all, I was not a racist at the same time I was a chauvinist.  There were two separate incidents.
   I was a racist at a bowling alley where my kids and I were waiting for a lane.  There was a group of three ahead of us:  a white girl, a black guy, and a Republican named Todd.  When they were finishing up, I happened to watch them tally their scores on the projector overhead:
  Terry: 240   Lamar: 165    Todd: 190
   As they brushed past, I smiled at Terry and said to her, “Boy, you really cleaned their clocks!”  She stared at me vacantly. 
   That’s when Todd stepped up to inform me, “Lamar usually does much better.  She just wasn’t getting any action off the pins.”
   Okay, so I had confused their names.  Hmmm.
   The second incident happened at a formal function my husband’s research team held to celebrate the end of a project.  Everyone’s spouses were invited and I was excited to meet them all.  In my cultural acuity I assumed all the women were the spouses and the men were the researchers.  I won’t go into details, but I was wrong.
   Why did I make these kinds of assumptions?
   I considered that people most prone to this are suffering from poor cultural identity.  Perhaps if I were a member of some specific ethnic group, one with a sense of heritage, I would be more astute.
   I am a member of no ethnicity except the mythical suburban mommy group.  My maiden name was Smith, I married a Given, and both of our family tree branches hang with names like Berry, Remick, Marston and Merrill.  I bet we’re all related.
   I’m sure we would be proud of these names if we just knew what they were.
   There’s always a fight about this at family gatherings. “We are Scottish!”  “No, we’re Irish.”  “We are English.”  “No, we’re Welsh.”
   Once everyone realizes we are nothing more than WASPs, someone invariably brings up the Indian Princess Story.  This is a sure sign of cultural poverty, when Anglo Saxons reflect with pride on the family’s sole Indian Princess.  She always marries the burly coal miner and is responsible for the family’s extraordinary longevity and ruddy complexion.
   It never occurs to anyone that we are a family of alcoholics, ruddy from exploded blood vessels and too drunk to actually die.
   And we don’t have any religious ties.  I was raised in a Congregationalist Protestant Church.  It doesn’t get any more vague than that. 
   When I was little, I wanted to convert to Catholicism.  Other kids on their birthdays would ask for Barbie or GI Joe.  I asked for rosary beads and a stack of communion wafers.
   To me, Congregationalists never seemed ‘sure enough’ of anything.  We doubted the Bible was literal.  We delved into technicalities of how the Virgin Mother conceived. We wanted forensic evidence that Jesus and God were related.
   And we’re never certain when we’ve committed felonious sin or some minor misdemeanor.
   My Catholic schoolmates had it made. There was no doubt that they would sin, each week; then they’d get to carry rosary beads to the confessional and eat communion wafers.
   And they got all the Holy Days off.
   Protestants go to school unless there’s a snow day, or the government changes some national leader’s birthday to cause a three-day-weekend.
   Ash Wednesdays had me writhing with jealousy.  My Catholic friends would get dismissed, then return to school looking holier than ever with a priest’s ashen thumbprint on their foreheads.
   I didn’t even know what Ash Wednesday was.  I was a lousy Sunday School student.  I always thought Thanksgiving was the day Moses led the Pilgrims to the Promised Land.
   And forget about my husband’s religious upbringing.  His mother dabbled in Christian Science, he and his sisters attended Methodist Bible School, their father was an electrician.
   At our third son’s 8th birthday party, he asked me if we were Jewish.
   “Why do you think we’re Jewish?” I asked, schlepping cake to all his friends.
   “Well, Pierre Boucher is French, Anthony Carboni is Italian, and I told them we weren’t anything.  So they told me I was Jewish because my name is Zachary.”
   Hmm.
   Perhaps people do not have to suffer from poor cultural identity to makes these kinds of assumptions.
   This may mean I am not a chauvinist bigot after all.
   Oy!  Such a weight from me has been lifted.