When I was growing up in New York City in the 1960's and 1970's my parents taught me to accept and receive others for who they were as people first, and not by the color of their skin, their cultural heritage or their religious principles. They taught me treat others with respect and honor always, and to treat everyone equally, regardless of their standing in life. I was not to judge them for their differences, but to receive and accept who others were in their uniqueness and their humanity. It was the person that mattered, and in my parents' world view, we were all the same. It was expected that I should act accordingly and I did, and to the best of my ability.
My parents told me once that it didn't matter who it was I married when that time would come. They weren't concerned about the color of his skin, his religious principles or cultural heritages and beliefs. Their main concern was for my happiness, as much as how this person would contribute to the good of our family and my life with him. Thus, through the knowledge my parents imparted to me, I learned to treat others as I would want to be treated, as much as I learned to accept others for the simplicity of their humanity. Beneathe the color of our skins, the richness of our heritage and our cultural and religious diversity, we are people first and foremost. I believed that then and I believe that now. Sadly, many people don't in this day and age.
Most of my friends were the sons and daughters of immigrants, many of them second generation Americans as I was, while others were the first to be born here, as my father and his brothers were. We were a hodge podge of cultural traditions, languages and beliefs, and in this tiny microcosm of a neighborood in the largest and most diverse city in the world we managed to get along for the most part. We were black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and Indian. We were from Italy and Greece, Ireland, Russia, China, Japan, the Carribbean, Africa, Egypt, South America, and more. We were Catholic, Protestant, Baptists, Jewish and Muslim, and every other religious affiliation in between, a veritable United Nations in our school yard. We played together or sat on the school's benches and laughed, boys and girls together or apart, but united in our way. We spent time in each others homes enjoying sleepovers, tasting each others foods, and listening to the language spoken in homes where English was not the first language but rather, a secondary one. We dated each other because we loved and nothing else mattered. In our own ways then, and without being cognizant of this, we were breaking the boundaries of differences at a time when the Civil Rights movement was at its peak, the Vietnam war was underway, and feminism began to take shape. For me, as young as I was, this microcosm shaped and defined my life, and how I personally choose to live it.
I won't lie and say that my world epitomized perfection and that problems did not exist. They did and I felt the stings of judgement, discrimination and fear in various configurations and at various times in my life as most of us do. In other words, I was not immune to being judged because of the color of my skin, the shape of my nose, the friendships I made, the people I dated and loved, or my cultural heritage. There were stunning moments when discrimination, control and hatred reared its ugly head, hurling itself in my direction with such rage I still find it incomprehensible, although I have learned to let these things roll off my back and forgive. I always forgive, even long after the dust has settled. In these instances the differences between us emerged and our individual degrees of awareness were revealed.
There was the time when, in Junior High School, I was cornered in a stairwell by a pack of ten girls who chose me as the target for their rage against the machine. I was jabbed and stuck with sharp pins and needles in my back, my kidneys, arms, thighs and buttocks because of the color of my skin, my blonde hair and blue eyes, blamed for things that occurred centuries before I was born. I remember walking into my social studies class late, crying and bleeding from what had been done to me. My teacher and classmates looked on in horror as I sunk into my chair, exhausted and frightened by my ordeal. These incidents went on for about a week until the culprits were found and my black and hispanic friends came to my rescue, angry at what had been done to me and for no reason.
There was a time when I was assaulted in our school yard by a pack of boys who thought it was appropriate to maul and grab at me and the other girls sitting with me during our lunch recess. I was pushed back into the corner as they swarmed over me, pulling at my clothes, my skirt, my breasts. I remember screaming at this violation, understanding in a moment what it might feel like prior to being raped. Somehow in the madness of the moment, I was rescued by my male friends before further damage was done, but the memory lingers in my mind. There were moments when mean comments were hurled at me because of the ethnic sound of my name, or how my Italian heritage came through in the Aquiline shape of my nose and my high domed forehead. I was made fun of and laughed at in that awful period known as adolescence as much as others have been and will continue to be, but it stung and hurt me to my core. I couldn't understand why.
There were times when a boy broke up with me not because he wanted to, but because his mother told him to do so because I was Italian and not Jewish like she was. Once, prior to my first marriage to a Jewish man, a former boyfriend of mine refused to attend my wedding because he felt I would be "diluting" his faith if I had children with this man. I remember being stunned by his reaction, and very much hurt when he uttered those words. I was good enough to date, but not good enough to marry within what he termed his "own kind". In a simple moment I realized that even he lacked tolerance and understanding.
As I get older I find myself growing increasingly more disillusioned by the world we live in, and if there is a safe place anywhere in which to live. Based on the news I listen to I doubt that more and more each day, and I find it immeasurably depressing and scary. I wonder why our world is engaged in a constant maelstrom of strife, and why so many continue to hate and destroy all that we have built and come to be. For a brief moment in time after the tragic events of 911, we were engaged in honoring each other, united in a spirit of love and understanding - at least that is how it felt here in NY. Six months later, and now 5 years afterwards, we are worse off than we ever were. I won't get into a diatribe about the war, or immigration or anything else for that matter, but I do believe we have the responsibility to teach each other to learn tolerance and understanding, and to accept our differences openly.
At work we discuss multiculturalism and diversity in various meetings with our peers. We host events and workshops that speak to these issues on an annual basis, inviting faculty, staff and students to share in the experience and open up their horizons and visions; to understand our uniqueness and honor the whole of who we are. Those of us who plan these events feel excited by the dynamics that could occur when we completely listen to one another.We are hopeful that progress will be made and honest communication will be generated between the diverse groups that make up our educational community. We hang the flags of the world's nations around our campus Quad, and honor specific groups regularly; Constitution and Citizenship week in September, Hispanic Heritage in October, Thanksgiving in November, Kwanzaa, Christmas and Hanukkah in December, Black History Month in February and Women's History in March. And yet, several months later, fights still ensue, one group insisting they are better than the other, one group determined to make another fall, just as in life. We come together and fall apart as quickly as I have written those words.
Perhaps I am naive in my belief that our world would be a better place if we took a moment to learn how to tolerate our differences and accept each other for who we are. Perhaps I am merely a dreamer who hopes that if we learn to bridge the gaps between us and actually take a moment to listen to each other, we can become a united world, extending our hands to each other in a symoblic gesture of unity, our version of All for one, one and all.
It's about time.