Too Quick To Label People - Coronado Eagle & Journal | Coronado News | Coronado Island News: Opinion

Too Quick To Label People

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Posted: Friday, August 9, 2019 11:00 am

Prejudices come in various forms. Recently a commentary in the Union Tribune ignited a plethora of diverse memories. The article recounted the author growing up in rural Missouri with the prejudices taught by family, school, and church against all people who were not white. The author recalled his father a year before dying still espousing the belief that “whites” were superior.

I called a high school friend to verify my beliefs that our small North Carolina mill town was different even though we grew up in segregation times, graduating from high school in 1959. She immediately mentioned the song we sang in Sunday school: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white they are precious in His sight….” Then she readily admitted her mother, who would have been at least 90 at the time, would probably never have voted for Barack Obama.

My mother might have been in that slot, also, even though she taught my sister and me to evaluate people on their character not their skin color. I never saw any prejudice from her until she was in her late 80s when, in front of Jean and me, she made a derogatory comment involving race. Stunned, I looked at Mother, turned to Jean, and said, “Where is that lady who taught us not to be prejudiced?” Her experience as a late-night nurse had jaded her.

My high school friend and I recounted being at Woman’s College, now University of North Carolina at Greensboro, after desegregation when all the black students were in my small dorm. Proportionately, it was a small number, but it was the first time most of us had been in a desegregated educational environment. No one made a big deal about it. It seemed normal.

Many years later the first black graduate from Woman’s College wrote an article in our school magazine where she said everyone had treated her like any other student during her four years there. Her college years were fun; students included her in activities and greeted her when they passed on the campus. This is the same town famous for the drug store counter sit-in.

My maternal grandfather, an itinerant minister who owned a small grocery store to support his eight children, was fired from the hometown church, one of the churches he had started, because he was “caught” playing checkers at his store with a black man in the 1930s. He is honored now by that church each anniversary, and his picture hangs in the foyer.  

My paternal aunts cared for the black woman who helped around the house when my grandparents were too old to do everything. When the lady became too frail and ill, my aunt regularly took food to her and made sure she was receiving care, just as she would have done for any friend. I am happy I had those role models to form my beliefs and feelings since we have little choice about our environment during formative years. My schools and churches never exhibited prejudice against race even though it was North Carolina in the 50s, and I’m sure prejudice existed there, too.

In the mid 70s, I was a Girl Scout leader in Lemoore, California. We had two black scouts out of 32, one of whom was the troop’s leader. One day the news was on in the living room, reporting about desegregation in Alabama. My daughter Jill rushed into the kitchen alarmed that some people did not want black people to attend school with white people. In disbelief she said, “Do you know that would mean Antonietta couldn’t be in our class?” I was proud that she had never considered skin color important.

I once substituted for a week in a San Diego classroom for boys convicted of felonies, Harambe House. A church had permission to house 15 boys away from juvenile hall. San Diego County Court and Community Schools provided the education in the church building, and a guard stayed with the boys, all of whom were black. I enjoyed the week especially since they were reading “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” one of my favorite books. Months later they asked me to teach there again. When a different guard entered, he greeted me with, “So you’re the white teacher the boys wanted to come back.” His tone indicated he was not pleased that they had requested a “white” teacher.  

Once one of my students at Polinsky, an emergency shelter for children in foster care, who regularly wasted his class time, accused me of being prejudiced after I reprimanded him. I then did something no teacher should do, but I was frustrated with his class disruptions. In front of the class, I immediately asked another student if he felt I was prejudiced. Without hesitation, he shook his head and answered, “No, Miss Linda, you’re not prejudiced.” Both boys were black. Then I stated, “Yes, I am prejudiced, prejudiced against lazy people, people who refuse to pull their own weight and are content to allow others to do the work.” Two years later I attended a football game at San Pasqual Academy, another foster care facility, and recognized several students from my Polinsky days. The boy who had accused me of being prejudiced rushed up and gave me a hug.

The student who had affirmed me publicly in class called after being emancipated. He had been invited to visit the Rotary club in La Jolla by one of the guest speakers in my class and had been introduced to the club’s philanthropies. He expressed his surprise that so many rich people gave so generously to help others. It was my opportunity to say, “There are good people and bad people of every color. Judge a person by his character not his skin color.”

Another Polinsky boy, upon leaving the classroom, said, “You’re afraid of me.” My response, “Why would I be afraid of you?” After he said, “I could beat you up,” I looked at him and said, “Of course you could, but you’re far too honorable to do that.” A few days later I attended juvenile court to observe what our students went through. He was sitting outside a court room, saw me, and immediately came over to hug me. He was seeking emancipation.  

A few years ago, when having lunch with two teachers, one lamented the high percentage of black population in prison. The other teacher queried, “And you don’t think they’re guilty?” She obviously did think they were guilty. In today’s society, that remark sounds prejudicial, but since the second teacher was black, it cannot be. The same words from me would label me prejudiced.

I don’t remember the exact context, but my mother once said, “A person can love the individual, but hate the race” in response to a childhood question I had asked about how people could love their black nanny or someone who helped in the house but still be prejudiced. Prejudiced people will probably always exist since those lacking self-confidence need someone to look down upon to make themselves feel better.

Hopefully, as the world’s people become more educated, as more people travel and experience various cultures, we will move past judging people by outward appearances, whether it be color, tattoos, or purple hair. The more integrated our society, the more people mingle with diverse populations, the easier it will be to realize that people are people, no matter what color they are. Those who are truly prejudiced miss out on valuable experiences and treasured relationships. We will always have flawed people, and our country will always be a work in progress. We can only hope that the curve will continue to rise toward a more perfect place for all of us.

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