Saturday, January 19, 2008

Civil Rights and Diversity

Miriam at AnceStories2 asks readers to think about issues related to Civil Rights and Diversity, in preparation for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Black History month in February. This post will address the main questions she poses.

*What was the racial, ethnic, or religious situation in the community where you grew up? Was your family part of a racial, ethnic, or religious majority or minority? Were there differences in your community or family such as developmental disabilities, mental illness, or social class differences? Were there bi-racial or mixed-faith families?

The neighborhood where I grew up was in the outskirts of Niagara Falls, NY. Our subdivision was and still is called Colonial Village. My house and my immediate neighbors' houses were in the Town of Lewiston, while about 6 houses down was the Town of Niagara. It was truly a great place to grow up. Think Erma Bombeck. It was that type of neighborhood. Neighbors watched out for each other; no one cared if kids cut across your lawn (well, except for the people on the other side of John, Kevin, Chris and Traci -- we had to take their driveway down to the road, pass "that" house, and cut back up Mark and Cheryl's lawn). Everyone gathered at one house and just played. Heck, summer weekends half the neighborhood packed up their fold-down trailers or tents and went camping together (Bedford Beach was the most popular destination).

There really wasn't any cultural diversity in this neighborhood, though. I don't recall a single black family. Across Saunders Settlement Road were Native American families, and we went to school with their children, but our little block didn't have any that I recall. There were different religions; mostly Catholic and Presbyterian I think. I'm not sure that's accurate either, as it didn't seem to matter. Would it have mattered had families of other ethnicities lived there? I don't know; I'd like to think it wouldn't.

In my family we did have a developomentally disabled aunt, my father's sister Maryann, who had Down Syndrome. She was a love, and I wish I'd known more of her. I remember specifically a story about her involving my best friend. I'd told him that "my aunt is coming over soon". He asked me curiously if it was the "retarded" one. I just laid into him, telling him that she was NOT retarded and he had no right to call her that. Years later it dawned on me that he wasn't insulting anyone; he just wanted to know which aunt was coming over, and the word "retarded" was the only feature he could think of to distinguish one aunt from the other. In fact, it wasn't Maryann that was coming over, but another aunt. Had it been Maryann coming, I may have had a different reaction.

To this day, I cringe when someone uses the phrase "that's so retarded" when they really mean "that's so stupid". The original meaning of the word "retarded" (slow, undeveloped, delayed) is no longer valid and the current meaning (stupid) is highly offensive. Yet I hear the phrase so often that I don't have "frown lines", I have "cringe lines".

Did your family experience discrimination or prejudice, or were family members prejudiced against others? Have you ever feared for your life because of prejudice?

I don't think I've experienced discrimination or prejudice, really. I did experience "old fashioned" expectations, though. I grew up the only girl with two older brothers. My brothers were reemed and/or lectured if they brought home anything less than an "A" in school. If I brought home "C's" I was pretty much left alone. I used to internalize that, and think I was dumb. Once I developed a sense of reasoning (I know, some of you are still waiting for that to happen), I realized the expectations for my brothers included growing up, going to college, working and providing for their families at a higher economic standard than our parents did. The expectations for me, however, included growing up, getting married, and raising children. And yes, this expectation came from the males, not the females. At any rate, it wasn't as important for me to earn good grades as my brothers since I wasn't going to have to "bring home the bacon". So while I wouldn't classify this phenomenon as discrimination, I would classify it as a double standard. One that did, finally, fade away as I entered high school. Of course, when the expectations of me went up, so did my lectures and punishments when I failed to meet them. I'm not really sure which end of the deal worked better!

These are only a few of the questions asked by Miriam. She does have a series of questions on what we know of our ancestors' experiences of race/culture/social issues. I didn't respond to these because I honestly have no idea of how to answer them. If you want to see more of what she asks, hop on over to her site. She'll also be posting in the near future (I think) links to others who are participating in her writing prompts so there'll be a lot of food for thought.


Terry Thornton said...

Colleen, Good, interesting first post. Thanks for sharing your history. [And thanks too for the bold font on light background --- these old eyes appreciate it!]

Miriam said...

Colleen, sorry I didn't notice this post sooner...I didn't have your new URL so new posts weren't coming up on my feed reader.

I'll add your post to my list of responses.

Colleen said...

Miriam, it's not a problem. I just posted it yesterday, and wasn't sure if I made the deadline, so to speak! Thanks for adding it!

Miriam said...

Oh, there's never a deadline! I still have tons of responses to write, myself! I've been too busy posting prompts to write the actual responses! LOL!