“I thought you told me he came from Poland.”
“No, Austria technically. They were close, and when he moved to a part of town primarily inhabited by Polish immigrants, he went with the flow, easier, safer. His village was close to the border, they spoke the same language, easy default.”
“Yes, but then it was not true. Claiming to be from one country when you are from another, seems fraudulent. Why couldn’t he just say he was from Austria?”
“I don’t see what difference it makes. Where you are from, should have nothing to do with who you are, or who you want to become. Why do you think people from certain origins all settled together. It was not just the language, food, customs, it was also the security.
Look what happened to the Japanese during the Second World War, they lived in close proximity, were citizens, and yet they were rounded up for being supposedly, a risk to our security. So, we took theirs. Even when you band together for safety, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to experience safety, but it helps. Race also has a lot to do with it, but you know that. Grandpa, as I recall from all the pictures, was from a region where nationality didn’t really make a lot of difference. Survival was the means to the end.
“If he lied about his origins so he could fit in, how do we know he didn’t lie about all sorts of other things?”
“Why would it matter. Did what he had to do to belong, have a detrimental affect on you? Did it impact your life, other than provide a substantial benefit financially and ethically to your life. People often hide things, or minimally don’t expose them to scrutiny when it doesn’t matter. Prejudice comes in all forms. I’m not saying you should lie about your origins, but I don’t see why you’d want to put them on a billboard for the whole world to see. None of their business. You should be judged on who you are, not what they believe you are.”
“I get all that. I just have to wonder if maybe, just maybe, we aren’t what we think we are, who we are. Doesn’t that bother you? Would you lie about your origins to fit in?”
I know her. If I continue to feed her insecurity we will be here all night talking in circles until one of us, probably me, looses patients and says something I’ll regret later. Best to not continue to kick a dead horse, it isn’t going to get up and go back to living, just because you think it should.
I find the whole origin premise, as to who you “Probably are,” disingenuous. We are all from someplace. Why does it matter where? It all comes down to not knowing people unlike ourselves. We tend, for better or worse, to not trust what we don’t know. We are inclined to fill in the blanks in what we don’t know, with what we want to be there. We invent lives for people, because it is easier to do, than get to know them. That would take incentive, initiative, a willingness to prove ourselves wrong. I just don’t know a lot of people willing to look for something, they may not like when they find it.
I spent some time in the South. Being from the North, I have my own built-in presumptions. They are passed down to us. The osmosis involved in protecting yourself and community from what we don’t know.
I lived in a community, where anyone different was suspect. It is a survival mechanism built into our culture. We traveled far less, than we do now. Most children grew up and stayed in the same neighborhood. It was not that it was expected, it was never questioned. It was just the way things were.
I escaped. I say escaped, because that is what I inadvertently did. I hadn’t even realized I was escaping at the time. Didn’t realize that until I was exposed to the differences in cultures, societies, and their acceptance or distrust of anyone not of their social family, that I was complicit in the continuance of presumptive speculation. It is simply a means to survival. Empathy is more easily applied when you have experiences that parallel those in a similar situation.
My first induction into this new reality of society and culture, had primarily to do with race. There was little divergence in the social networks of the time, so you grew up being indoctrinated by those around you, whether you wanted to be or not. It came with the territory. Until you are able to get away and look back, you have no reason to question the indoctrination, or its implications.
I had two diverse experiences that I will always remember. The first being, that getting to know one person, singular, of a different social and racial background, is appropriate. They may even become a friend. But if there are more than one, plural, beware. “They are probably up to no good, and will cause you harm. Don’t trust them, they ain’t your kind.”
My second lesson was when an elderly woman asked me, “Where you stayin at Honey?” I was working with a relief program at the time, and was involved with differing social settings, predominantly shared by people who looked similar by race or culture, and different from me.
I went on to tell her where I was staying, and why; she looked shocked. I thought at first I had offended her in some way, but she quickly put me at ease. “You shouldn’t be stayin down there. That place is full of crackheads and whores. You need to stay over at…” and she went on to tell me where it was safe to stay, in her opinion. I realized then, that she, despite our color difference, was my grandmother.
She didn’t have to be concerned with my wellbeing, but she was. Not because she had to be, or it was expected, it was just her being a good person I believe most people are, given the opportunity.
How do we change the distrust associated with stereotypes, and see the trees, not just the forest? I believe the only way it will ever be possible, is for us to come out of our societal cocoons and get to know one another. I know that sounds simplistic, but I know it works. Painting everyone with the same brush is easy, it is our choice of colors that is difficult, but also the most rewarding.
I was in Washington DC, not long ago, apparently on the wrong side of the tracks, when I was stopped by a two guys leaning up against an old car. I didn’t think anything of it, there were people standing around visiting, everywhere. One of them said, “hey, you.” I stopped and looked at them. Then one of then said, “You shouldn’t be here. Dangerous place for people like you.”
People like me? The first time I realized, I was “a people like me.” Then the other one says with a smile, “you know we all bleed the same color.”
It wasn’t until later I understood. Presumption, prejudice, affiliation, and many other labels that are applied when trying to fill in the banks, aren’t adequate, no matter how hard we try. When we assume we are the only ones that know, we are making the biggest mistake, of ours and other’s lives.