Wednesday, July 25, 2007


One of the greatest joys of teaching is getting to know many young people and their families, all from different ethnic backgrounds and cultures. In today’s America, white ‘Caucasian’ people are a minority, just as are married people. I consider interacting with all these ‘foreigners’ the greatest blessing our country has to offer, it being a melting pot of cultures. I feel honored to learn about different customs and traditions. Naturally, people tend to be a bit careful at first, not knowing what to expect. Soon they realize, however, that I have an open mind and heart, and allow me to have a closer look at their way of life. This country’s history is so young, and even the descendants of the Pilgrims cannot compete with a civilization ten times older.

Our past is not a pretty story regarding the way the white man has treated anyone different from him. We brought in Africans to serve as slaves and Chinese to build our railroads. The former didn’t attain equal rights until a few decades ago, and are still regarded as a lower form of the human race by skinheads and their kind. The second group was forbidden by law from becoming citizens or owning property. Interracial marriage was against the law until post-WWII era, although children of mixed ethnicity existed since the first African women came here. A slave was her master’s property and could never say ‘no’. Even among the ‘white race’ there were different categories, with Jews, Italians and the Irish finding it impossible to climb higher in social hierarchy.

Today this all is different, or it is at least supposed to be. The Southerners fought hard to keep their way of life through the 1960s; Lady Bird Johnson met with often hostile mobs of people when she tried to gain support to her husband’s policies. It is not uncommon even today to find two towns next to each other, one white, and the other black. We were eager to condemn apartheid in South Africa, yet turned a blind eye to our own almost similar situation. Twenty-five years ago I was shocked to see two groups of different skin color waiting for buses in downtown Nashville, one on a street running East-West, the other North-South. In the same city I was in a department store when I saw an elderly African-American man shoplift an item. Our eyes met. The look of despair made me feel sorry for him. He clearly expected me to alert the security, but I just waved for him to leave the store with his inexpensive stolen item. He smiled, even if awkwardly, and I could read ‘thank you’ on his lips.

A couple days ago I was reading a news story on America Online about road rage on a narrow highway in California. Numerous victims had died on this stretch, not to mention all the serious injuries, all a result of rage. The road was being widened but some drivers were getting crazier than ever, shooting the road crew members with BB guns and sideswiping them with their vehicles. The police and the mayor were forced to close the road until the construction was finished, which caused it to become a news story. Something prompted me to start reading comments on the blog the site provided. I was shocked not only by the truly primitive writing, but especially the outright hostile and ugly racist content of many entries. Most of it had nothing to do with the situation and the story itself, but these anonymous writers used the opportunity to vent their deep-rooted hatred for anyone different: Latino, Japanese, African-American, Indian, you name it. I guess the right for free speech protects this cowardly group of ‘humans’, but to me this was a blatant example of hate speech. The laws, in my opinion, should be changed and the identities of these racists should be exposed. Throw this lowlife in jail and free the drug addicts to make space. With treatment most of the latter could become productive members of society, unlike these primitive, lizard-like members of homo horribilis. We share a lot of the same DNA with older life forms from worms to reptiles. It is among the lizards where a mutation with a different color gets quickly killed and eaten up by others, often by the mother.

Is the same primitive reaction by the brain stem behind such hateful emotions? I think much of it has to do with fear of anything different, be it skin color, clothing or language, or perhaps a superior skill. As the percentage of ‘whites’, the former ruling class, shrinks, many people in that group become frightened and react with hostility. As a society we should do better with understanding and accepting each other. This city of mine, Seattle, is probably better integrated than just about any American town. But driving just less than three hours north to Vancouver, British Columbia, presents a society a light year ahead of us. If the Canadians are able to do it, is there any valid reason why we cannot? Seeing four friends, all from different backgrounds, dining together and genuinely enjoying each others’ company is inspiring and gives hope for a better tomorrow. Let us hope that our children are not burdened by the same baggage most of us have grown up with.

And to my students and friends, Europeans included, thank you for making my life so much richer.