Growing up in a rural community in northern Oklahoma, I became the perfect example of a person who was featured in Lt. Joe Cable’s haunting ballad from the musical “South Pacific”: “You’ve got to be taught, before it’s too late, before you are 6 or 7 or 8, to hate all the people your relatives hate, you’ve got to be carefully taught.”
I clearly heard this message from the pulpit, in the cafes, from teachers and my peers, and in most other places I frequented.
Though “hate” may be a bit strong, I learned to view “others” as deserving of less respect and to casually treat them as second-class members of society – more so to view them with suspicion about behaviors I would easily overlook when practiced by those of us among the chosen Caucasians. I can recall being “carefully taught” to be wary about my physical welfare when in the presence of minorities, especially those with darker skin color.
Though I left that community, moved to a metropolitan area, continued through schools and universities to gain three higher education degrees, and became friends with people who represent every walk of life, I will readily admit to still having moments when I feel concern about the possible motives of others unlike me. Even having taught others in public school settings for more than five decades about fairness, justice, discrimination, open-mindedness, unwarranted suspicion of minorities and all that defines living in a country that esteems its inclusive Constitution, I experience these momentary flashes of suspicion and feelings of being superior to “those others.”
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Fortunately, these reactions are only momentary, then dismissed by my wealth of experiences and better-prepared rational mind. But they happen, far too frequently for my satisfaction.
Now I face a different dilemma. As I continue to see evidence in our culture of a “George Zimmerman mentality,” which contributed to Trayvon Martin’s death, my inclination is to overcompensate toward those I have even subtly demeaned for all these years, hence possibly giving the impression of being condescending. This is a true conundrum that helps me understand President Obama’s plea that we reflectively consider how our personal history may affect our present attitudes and behaviors to disadvantage.
In my case, this is full-time work.
JOHN H. WILSON